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Fine Art Alum Lauren Chai Sends Love to Her Missing Mother With Series of Paintings

The artworks are an expression of emotion and love, and explore the healing process

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Hong Kong by Lauren Chai. Oil on canvas. 36” x 60”.

Missing persons poster spopulate a billboard in a painting depicting a Los Angeles street. Letters litter the sidewalk where a young woman in a polka dot dress holds a baby in a bowl. The baby is Lauren Chai, an Academy of Art University School of Fine Art alum, who painted the canvas for a class project three years ago. The woman is her mother, Mira, who disappeared in 2002 when Chai was 11 years old.

In an effort to send her a message of love and support, Chai has created six paintings, each one depicting one of the last places her mother was known to have been. Entitled Last Known Locations, the series will be exhibited at Little Raven Gallery (1015 Howard Street) from Thursday, May 5 through Saturday, May 7.

To finance the show, Chai set up a GoFundMe campaign (https://www.gofundme.com/laurenchai) to raise money for transportation of the artworks, promotion, mounting and installation supplies and the venue rental fee. If it’s successful, she plans to take the exhibition to each of the locations depicted in the series starting with San Francisco, and continuing to Honolulu, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Chai said she never planned for the project to get so big, but with art being her primary outlet for expression, and with a lot of new information surfacing about her mother, it was only natural that her feelings and emotions would start to come out through painting.

“When I did the first one it wasn’t with the intention of doing all this,” Chai explained. “It was for an assignment. A year or so later I did another one. Months later, I decided I would do the whole thing—all the locations. But it wasn’t intended to be like this in the beginning.”

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Lauren Chai working on her Hong Kong painting. Image courtesy of Lauren Chai.

Working on the paintings over the last few years has helped with the healing process, said Chai, who was raised in Hawaii by her paternal grandparents. Her sense of healing is reflected in the series as the atmosphere of the paintings subtly evolves from dark to light.

“It started out really emotional and sad, and as I went along I noticed that the paintings at the end were coming out brighter and more positive looking—full of positive energy, whereas the first paintings have more gray, they’re heavier. So that’s reflective of what I was going through in the healing process.”

All of the paintings depict images of Chai’s mother. Some of them feature her father, who became divorced from Mira when Chai was about five years old. Many of them feature Chai as a baby. There’s one entitled Honolulu, depicting a beach in the city where the artist was born in 1991. Her mother is holding her and smiling brightly. A serene set of eyes watch the scene from the sky.

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Honolulu by Lauren Chai. Oil on paper. 36” x 48”.

Chai doesn’t know what happened to her mother, except that she remarried and had three more children, but she speculates that her maternal grandmother may have had something to do with her disappearance. She calls her grandmother a “crazy evil genius con artist who scammed the ex president of the Philippines.” Though she met her as a baby, she has no relationship with her now—choosing instead to focus on more positive things like sending love to her mother through this series, and launching her career as an artist.

This summer, she and her boyfriend Nathaniel Evans, a fellow painter and Academy alum, plan to move to New York, but until then, she’s getting ready to take the next step in the healing process—sharing this deeply personal series of paintings with the world.

“It’s not just a search for her exactly why I’m doing this, because I feel like if she wanted to get in contact with me she would have been able to,” Chai said. “I feel like this is more for me—the healing, processing it, being okay with getting out there and expressing myself and being able to be open with it. This is more for me than about finding her, but it is also to send her a message. She could look this up and see that I’m still waiting and I still love her.”

Last Known Locations runs from May 5–7 at Little Raven Gallery in SoMA, 1015 Howard Street. Go to http://laurenhanachai.com/ or https://www.gofundme.com/laurenchai for more information.