Cheryll Leo-Gwin explores identity and history in her journey from jewelry designer to public artist

Seeking the stories of Chinese women, Cheryll Leo-Gwin is inspired to celebrate them in her prints and sculpture.

Cheryll Leo-Gwin, ’75, ’77, grew up in a home filled with dress forms, fabrics and clothing, trappings of her mother’s work as a designer of bespoke apparel. At age 13, Leo-Gwin’s mother had dropped out school to earn money designing clothes for members of the Canadian Parliament, believing that her professional opportunities would be limited by the Canadian Exclusion Act that discriminated against the Chinese. Later, when the family relocated to Seattle, her mother continued to make custom clothes for the local elite.

“Subconsciously, I started using the dress form,” Leo-Gwin says of her artwork. “Clothing embodies the personality and the desires of the women who wear them.”

Her current show, “Larger Than Life” at The Jack Straw Cultural Center, features large-scale colorful prints that use the Chinese coat as a recurring motif. These prints are displayed alongside sculptures and busts that evoke the dress forms and the personal histories of the artist’s mother and other Chinese women who survived turbulent times in the U.S. and China.

Leo-Gwin’s passion for Chinese women’s histories is rooted in the exclusion of their stories from the public and historic record for over 5,000 years in China as well as more recently in the United States. “We know about the railroad workers and miners, but we know nothing about the women,” she says. “Women’s births, marriages and deaths were not written down. So, I want to bring some of those stories to the surface, so they are not forgotten.” Some of these stories are presented at a listening station in the Jack Straw gallery that features an oral history of a contemporary female Chinese poet whom Leo-Gwin befriended on her travels.

In 2010, Leo-Gwin journeyed to China and collected histories from people who were teenagers during the Cultural Revolution—children of intellectuals who had been sent to prison or relocated to the countryside. These young people grew up to become the famous Misty Poets of China, a group who rebelled against the restrictions placed on artmaking during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s. While men like Bei Dao and Gu Cheng are internationally known poets to rise out of that literary movement, Leo-Gwin became close with a lesser-known female poet who was a central figure of the Misty School’s underground literary scene.

Later, Leo-Gwin organized a public program with a number of the Misty Poets at the Bellevue Art Museum. She had the idea to also mount an exhibition of their work, but the international shipping and production costs were prohibitive. That’s when she decided to record an audio series, which she plans to continue to develop.

Leo-Gwin’s appreciation for the complexity of Chinese identity and stories evolved over many decades. Born in Canada and “raised on Beacon Hill when it was predominantly white … we were not Chinese enough to be Chinese and not white enough to be white,” she says. Her mother never visited China and discouraged her daughter from going, fearing that as a non-Mandarin speaker, she would be “sold into slavery.” But in 1999, Leo-Gwin was invited by the Chinese government to join a cultural exchange program. She joined a delegation of artist participants from nine different countries.

“That’s when I began to wonder, ‘What does it mean to be Chinese?’” she says. Leo-Gwin traveled to Jingdezhen, the ceramic capital of China, and studied blue-and-white ceramics. At first, she felt distinctly American in her identity. But gathering stories from various women artists and teachers, she began to think about the artists and activists of Chinese descent who worked in San Francisco in the 1960s. She realized that, like them, she could bring her own interests in social justice and activism into her artmaking practice.

That practice has expanded and evolved over the past four decades to include a diverse range of expressions. Leo-Gwin started out as a jeweler and received her BFA in metal design from the UW—though it was a winding path through work, school and family.

Initially, Leo-Gwin took night classes, while working full-time and doing freelance illustration work. She struggled with finding time to do her homework, but her supervisor supported her in taking an art class during an extended lunch hour. Eventually, this schedule also became challenging. So Leo-Gwin asked her watercolor professor Val Welman for private lessons. He agreed to tutor her for two years, but he refused to be paid, she says.

From 1969 to 1970, Leo-Gwin took time off to start a family and care for her young children. Though she got divorced and became a single parent, Leo-Gwin was determined to complete her education. As she crept closer to finishing her bachelor’s degree, the only classes available when her children were in daycare were in jewelry-making. So her first works were small. When she completed her BFA, Professor John Marshall—who headed metalsmithing and jewelry at the UW—offered her one of six coveted spots in the MFA program.

From there, Leo-Gwin scaled up her work. She expanded her skills while working at Pioneer Porcelain Enamel in Georgetown. The plant had a giant furnace, and she dumpster dived and salvaged scraps to make new artwork. She learned to airbrush colorful ground enamel onto large panels that she fired at the plant. These techniques prepared Leo-Gwin to design a public art mural for The Wing Luke Museum’s original building on 7th Avenue in 1985. In the late 1980s, she also helped to produce the murals at the Westlake transit station which feature the art of Roger Shimomura, ’61, Gene Gentry McMahon, ’76, ’78, and Fay Jones.

Leo-Gwin’s latest public art project, “Oracle Bones,” was commissioned by The Wing Luke Museum to stand outside of the former Immigration Naturalization Services building in the Chinatown-International District. In her proposal to create the commemorative artwork , Leo-Gwin reflected on the stories that she heard growing up from her Japanese neighbors who had been forced into incarceration camps during World War II. The piece evokes the form, designs and pattern work of women’s clothing, which resonates with the works in Leo-Gwin’s current show at Jack Straw.

She hopes that visitors to her show will leave thinking about questions like: Who are the Chinese? And what are these stories about? “My work is very narrative,” says Leo-Gwin. “But I want visitors to bring their own stories to the experience.”

“Larger Than Life” can be seen at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in the University District until January 5. Visits are by appointment: Call 206-634-0919 or email