21 Questions With Artist and Activist Chella Man
Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: Antonio Ysursa
New YorkThe “21 questions” of are back with an eye on New York creatives. Chella Man is an artist who creates films, paintings and performances about the intersections of his Deaf, trans, Chinese and Jewish identities. “pure joy‘, an exhibition he curated for the 1969 Gallery, features 14 emerging disabled artists interpreting the feeling of joy through paintings, sculpture, film, drawing and photography (on view through August 13).
Last name: Chella Man
Piece: sunset park
Occupation: Filmmaker, performance artist, painter, actor and curator
What’s hanging above your couch?
There is nothing, unfortunately. I live with my best friend and we just moved, so we’re working on putting everything together. I have always preferred minimalism, and my friend is very fond of color and pop. We are working on it; that’s a lot of coin tossing.
What was the first job you had in New York?
It was very difficult for me to find a job here. There was that one day I remember when I printed out over a hundred resumes and applied to every restaurant near Parsons, where I went to school, and near my home in Williamsburg. The interviews went very well, but as soon as I told them I was deaf, they fired me. So I started turning at social media and really work on it. My first job ended up creating and sharing work online.
What color are you always drawn to?
Blue, because it shows the continuum of emotions. Sometimes I look at blue and feel deep sorrow; other times it has the power to lift me out of any type of anxiety that I am feeling.
What art or artifact are you most surprised to own?
Christine Sun Kim, one of the artists of “Pure Joy”, offered me her Palm of the hand sketch. I fell on Christine’s TED Talk when I was in high school. At the time, I was this cisgender, Asian, Deaf teenage girl. Seeing Christine, who is also Asian and deaf and an artist, was the first time in my life that I felt represented. Today we are close friends, and I can’t believe she is in my life this way and I’m getting to know her on a personal level.
Which New Yorker would you like to date?
Someone who is older, who has seen gentrification and change in New York City, and who has also experienced queer and disability protests in the city. To be able to sit down and talk with someone who didn’t just write or read about it, but was actually there, would be extremely special.
What’s the last thing you did with your hands?
Myself, since I just administered testosterone.
Is there something you have multiple versions of?
My diaries. There’s a lot of wacky shit in them. I started my first one when I was 7 and I still have it. I write every day. Growing up, we are socialized to filter thoughts, and in my journal I try to throw that out the window and allow myself to say things that might be mean to others or to myself. I also use it as a creative visualization and to figure out what I want for my future. At the same time, it’s very anchored in the present moment because when you write, you have to slow down.
Which museum in New York do you always go to?
Modern Art Museum. I grew up in a very conservative town in central Pennsylvania. When I was 14 I begged my parents to take me and some friends to MoMA, but I couldn’t even talk to them when we were there because I was so overwhelmed and stunned by the art and architecture. I feel sentimental and nostalgic every time I walk into MoMA, because I think about how his visit was one of the first times I felt deeply, deeply connected to art.
What do you always have next to your computer?
My diary—and coffee.
Where is the best view in town?
In Sunset Park, there are some very nice piers that you can squeeze onto. Being out on the water on a completely abandoned pier – I’ve never seen a sight quite like this in New York. The skyline is expansive and you can see downtown Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and New Jersey. My friends and I were there on the 4th of July and I felt like I could breathe easy for the first time in a long time since the space was so vast.
What building or object do you want to redraw each time you see it?
Listeners. Many deaf and hard of hearing people wear headphones all day without them plugged in because non-disabled people will be more aware that we can’t hear. It’s my choice of armor. I actually made one sculpture that reinterprets the helmet as armorwho is in place at the moment at the Leslie Lohman Museum.
What is one thing you would change in your field?
I would dismiss stereotypes in every area. By rejecting stereotypes, you also reject any type of access control. You allow the extent of what a person can be. Stereotypes and access control create binaries that do not allow us to authentically share our complexities and the continuum of our identity. If we welcome other possibilities, we could welcome change and allow people to change, to change and to be human beings.
If you could live anywhere in New York, where would it be?
I feel at peace when it’s golden hour, and being in Dumbo, you can access that experience every day. And it’s one of the few places where I feel like people are slowing down, which is rare. I am also part of a transgender boxing club, and Gleason’s Gym is right there. I go there three or four times a week. I started boxing about a year ago and love the non-violent violence of the sport.
What would you do in reserve if it ceased to be produced?
Watermelon. I eat like a whole watermelon every day in the summer, and I couldn’t survive without it. Ninety-five percent of my blood is watermelon juice.
What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
I’m bored because I’m often more creative when I consume so much. So finding silence, maybe sitting in a room with just a coffee and a piece of paper for about five hours.
Where was your first apartment in New York and how much was the rent?
Oh my, that’s so classic: my first apartment was in the McKibbin Lofts. I lived with my partner, MarieV, at the time and a bunch of roommates. Officially there were six or seven people in the loft, but there were people coming in and out and sometimes you showed up and there was a nicely naked man on the couch. The rent could not exceed $400.
Where in the city do you go to be alone?
I choose a place somewhere, according to my mood, and I walk without destination. If I want to experience contemporary culture, I would choose Canal Street or Soho. I recently chose Park Slope because I was thinking about the possibility of having a family, which I never thought I would be able to connect to. It’s really cool how different boroughs and parts of New York can satisfy different cravings that you have.
What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
Someone said to me, “You’re too ambitious. It had a lot to do with their own ideas of what they thought I could accomplish as a disabled trans person of color. I am very persistent and determined in the work I do, and the project I was working on ended up being a success. You rarely see someone like me being the stereotypical definition of what success might be. Why would you tell someone their dreams are too big? Even if you really believe it, what could that person get out of hearing that? I don’t know how you could tell someone, especially someone who is intersectionally marginalized, How dare you imagine taking up more space.
What have you given someone that you wish you could get back?
My main memories. I shared them with people who didn’t deserve it. They didn’t have the amount of conscious care that I expected them to have. But I don’t regret it, because even if your heart feels torn, you come out of it stronger than ever.
What is your favorite restaurant in NYC and do you order regularly?
East Harbor Seafood Palace, which is a dim sum place that still has carts. I’ll get sea bass, char siu bao, sticky rice and jook. I go there with my grandparents. It’s like eating your memories.
What descriptive phrase do you want on your obituary?
“He did his best.” Legacies are difficult, because I don’t want to be known as one thing.