If you, like me, were admonished for doodling in class as a child, you understand my fascination with the work of multihyphenate artist and illustrator Kiyomi Negi-Tran. Her graphic recordings, rooted in basic tenets of communication, archive important lectures and conversations. At an early, high-key Creative Mornings event in January 2021, Chicago luminary Tonika Johnson spoke about her creative practice as it relates to urban segregation. Negi-Tran, drawing along in real time on iPad Procreate, illustrated a nonlinear map of Johnson’s words about the project Folded Map. Watching the visual interpretation evolve, my glee was compounded by the fact that additional graphic interpretations of takeaways provide further access points for visual learners, the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and neurodivergent communities. What can I say? Accessibility makes me giddy.
Featuring a live scribe at virtual events is a trend, but it is tricky to describe the practice. The final illustration is not strictly imagery. There are also words, but the words are not pure signifiers: they have aesthetic value, like calligraphy. The resulting illustration, distributed via email by Creative Mornings, feels like a keepsake of a memory rather than something data-driven. (What a rarity in capitalism to receive such a generous gift.) This practice goes by many names, including graphic recording, graphic facilitation, visual harvesting, real-time note-taking, process design, data visualization, sense-making, visual storytelling, visual note-taking for comprehension, scribing, sketch note-taking, vision-boarding and live sketching. While they all apply, none really capture the je ne sais quoi of the form. It’s all fun, and “data visualization” is so dry and lackluster.
Turning words into drawings is but one of Negi-Tran’s many talents. She is a creative director, graphic designer, Japanese translator, event producer, animator and traditional Japanese drummer in the Tsukasa Taiko ensemble. As for how she juggles all of these roles, she makes a distinction between service art (what one does for money) and fine art: “At the core of any of my practices lies a desire to create and communicate, knowing that my artistic skill sets are tools for me to reach out to others. Service work/art would be considered the types of projects I work on to fulfill a client’s needs. In contrast, fine art would be work that is based on self-expression, personal agendas, or intellectual content I set out to explore.”
Her fine art drawings are on display in a group show at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport. Negi-Tran is the creative director of Asian Improv aRts Midwest (AIRMW). Their mission is “to build a vital, self-empowered Asian American Community in the Chicago area by advancing the understanding and profile of Asian American cultures through the traditional and contemporary cultural arts.” The group places emphasis on programming that reflects the multicultural, multiethnic population of Chicago as well as the nation. Negi-Tran organized and is also included in the current exhibition “SHIKOUKAIRO III: Patterns of Thought.” It is their third annual group show, and challenges the often one-dimensional public perception of Asian American identity. From the exhibition statement: “The show features artists who are intuitively influenced by their Asian diasporic background and experiences, yet whose practices diverge from didactic and diegetic inquiries of cultural identity.” The works presented reflect the range of the Asian American diasporic experience and take issue with the tokenization of Asian Americans and the oversimplification of their individual narratives, especially with regard to creative expression.
The murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin galvanized Negi-Tran to redouble her focus on social justice and activism. Most recently, she contributed an illustration to the #Doughsomething Fundraiser, spearheaded by the Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) affiliation alongside renowned chefs including Chicago Creative Mornings Speaker Beverly Kim.
The initiative increased awareness of the uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes, provided bystander intervention training and raised funds to support the AAPI community. “I just knew inside me that this would be an important piece of illustration that would crossover my definitions of service and fine art,” she says. “I am honored to participate in a movement that benefits both AAAJ as well as the hospitality industry. Thanks to social media, my drawing can soar and reach new audiences that I could never achieve on my own [as people] learn about AAAJ and the resources they offer.”
Follow Negi-Tran on Instagram @letskeepdrawing. “SHIKOUKAIRO III: Patterns of Thought” is on view at Zhou B Art Center, 1029 West 35th, through May 31.