Mah Jei Mei

July 7-29
First Friday reception July 7, 6:30-9pm
Film screening July 9

This exhibition features work by local artist Sarah Mah Withers and her not-so-local sister, Leslie Mah, of Oakland, California. The work is multimedia, and the artists are interdisciplinary. Sarah and Leslie grew up, along with a third sister, Rebecca, in Boulder, Colorado. An expert mountain biker, Sarah eventually made her way to the Western Slope, where she founded Over the Edge bike shop and ran Desert Rat Tours, a bike tour company, for several years with her husband. She now teaches at Grand Junction High School. Her stark woodblock prints and restrained yet fluid ink brush paintings often convey animal forms. Her oil paintings and photography at once verge on abstraction and depict the landscape she has become so familiar with living and biking in Grand Junction.

Leslie began performing as a musician in Boulder but found its suburbia culturally sterile. As a young adult she landed in San Francisco and became a founding member of the seminal queercore punk band Tribe 8. The exhibition will include audio displays of some of Tribe 8’s music, which Leslie describes stylistically as “Pure f—-you-irreverence and I’m gonna have a good time regardless.” She is also a tattoo artist and painter. The natural world abounds in Leslie’s iconography as well, but her technique differs greatly from Sarah’s, with a high-level of detail and intense, graphic quality. Illness also informs her work: “Since being diagnosed with gynecological cancer, I have been envisioning the DNA in my cells. All this genetic material I’ve inherited. I’m named after a paternal aunt who died in her 20s of gyno cancer. My mother died 25 years ago from gyno cancer. All our ancestors before us were survivors, they made us possible, and we also must deal with our family vulnerabilities. Some family legacies are meant to change.”

The title of the exhibition, Mah Jei Mei, means “Mah Sisters” in Chinese, reflecting Leslie and Sarah’s heritage on their father’s side. “Our paternal grandfather was an art collector and dealer in imperial China. The family immigrated to the US in 1947 when the Chinese exclusion act of 1882 was finally being rolled back. He supported the family by selling his collection out of a shop in Manhattan.” It was their mother, however, who served as the main influence on Leslie’s and Sarah’s artistic development. A constant artist, “she brought the concept of creating as an everyday practice” into their lives, writes Leslie.

The daughters of a biracial couple, Sarah and Leslie both experienced discrimination and alienation growing up, not fully accepted by peers or neighbors for their mixed race identities. Now, writes Sarah, “the mix is what is so important to me. I can never claim to be any one thing, and I certainly wouldn’t ever want to.” She and Leslie will be road tripping from California to bring this show to the Grand Valley community.

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