Winnie Lam: Redefining Community Benches
Although she works in Silicon Valley, Winnie Lam does far more than tech work. Lam is a community artist and environmental advocate, channelling her passion for sustainability into all of her projects. Recently, Lam gathered used materials to create a community creative project on her front lawn, a decorative themed bench that has attracted local attention on social media. Managing Editor Hannah Chew sat down with Lam to discuss this vibrant and engaging project.
Arts Help is interested in profiling artists making a change, especially in their communities. Can you tell me about your background and artworks?
As an artist, I am a maker. I love making stuff, from furniture to costumes to sculptures to centrepieces, basically, anything that's 3D or has environmental meaning to it.
From your community-oriented bench to your tribute work for environmental charities, you have an incredibly diverse range of projects. Where do you derive your inspiration from?
I’ll talk about the bench project first. I live on the corner of a fairly busy intersection, and while a lot of people prefer to live on a quiet street, I actually thought like my home because I could turn my front yard into an art exhibit space. The inspiration came from the fact that all my plants have died in my yard, and part of my yard was looking empty and sad. I thought, “I could replant some new plants there, but they would probably not do too well, given my track record.” And so I decided that I would turn this space into an art exhibition space. From there, I got the idea of making this bench and shaping my environment.
I then decided to put some fake grass on it, so at least now my yard looked like it's alive again! After that, I decided I would put stuff on the bench to make it look more intricate. That was the initial inspiration behind this piece.
Your bench project stands at the forefront of your work, emphasizing materiality and community. Where did it begin? How has the piece evolved?
It started with the current circumstances. We're all stuck at home and not able to hang out with friends and family in person. I felt like, for myself and for other people, there was a real yearning for that connection that you can't get through Zoom calls. It is just is not the same.
I bought a bench secondhand from someone on Craigslist, and I decided to jazz it. I started with a “Hello” sign on it as a way to say hello to my friends and neighbors while still observing social distancing.
You mentioned that your material work includes costuming and construction. Can you tell me about what drives these projects and your desire to create?
In the past, I have made costumes to get attention for fundraisers. I've raised money for the World Wildlife Fund, and I made this costume with tons of materials, including leaves. The piece depicted some pandas hugging trees because the World Wildlife Fund logo has always been a panda, and I wanted it to be a recognizable symbol.
I've also done pieces of artwork for awareness. There’s this charity that I support, which aids guide dogs for the blind. I made this sculpture out of flowers and natural materials that had a dog leash attached for a fundraising effort.
Much of my work is to promote a charity, like in the examples that I just gave. It's also sort of a demonstration of my passion for the environment.
These works may take a mind of their own, but they start with your ideas. Tell me a little bit about your creative process.
It comes in all different forms. I'll go back to the grass bench to explain. I thought about the idea of making the bench, and once I finished installing the fake grass, I sent a picture to my friends. They told me, “Well, this looks kind of cool, but it needs more life.” So I decided to add more life to the bench by adding animals.
I started by putting some squirrels on it, but I found it's even more interesting if the squirrels are actually doing something, so I made the scene where the squirrels are having a picnic. I think things just evolved, especially since I put this thing out there in the public display.
The way that the public interacts with my pieces really inspires the next piece, and it goes on from there. So, for instance, I put this picnic blanket with the four squirrels on it, but a few days later, the squirrel started disappearing. I’m guessing people probably thought that I was trying to give away the squirrels for free!
Either way, the bench looked kind of sad with just one squirrel, so I needed to do something to make it come alive again. It was smack in the middle of the summer, so I went to this Goodwill store just a few blocks away from my street, and they had this giant Olaf snowman from the movie Frozen. I also made this lemonade stand out of cardboard, and I put it next to Olaf and the bench.
A few days later, there was this giant teddy bear that appeared on the bench. I was so confused and ended up taking the bear into my garage. Someone eventually messaged me on Instagram, saying he thought the bench needed more friends and decided to bring the teddy bear. I didn’t think the bear fit the snowman theme, but I told him I’d definitely use it!
Do you consider this specific project a piece of community art, and if so, why is this type of community art necessary?
I think that, yes, it is community art because it is certainly out there for the public to see and experience. I also added a guest book that sits out there besides the bench to let people be part of my art. When I first put the guest book out there, I was really worried and nervous that nobody would sign it at all. It turns out, people have taken to it really enthusiastically, and the book is full, I keep adding pages to it, and people just love seeing what other people have written. And so I think from the community book alone it's really a piece of community art.
I regularly see people put their dog or kids on the bench to take a picture with the teddy bears and Olaf. I’m starting to get more comments from the community saying their kids asked to walk to my corner so they can see what new things I’ve added.
I think as artists, we are communicators, and we have the unique ability to communicate and invoke emotion in people. For me, spreading happiness and positive messages is really the point of my art, particularly this year.
Speaking of your local community, how have they responded to your bench and your work in general?
I hear from people on Facebook and Instagram, as well as people who sign the guest book. The mayor of Sunnyvale came by too, he took pictures and a selfie and signed the guest book. He ended up posting on his Facebook about the bench.
I think what I love the most is how people build on the art. Earlier, you asked about the community aspect of it, and for the holidays, I have this display of this teddy bear, bunny, and Santa Clause with all these Christmas presents. Then, someone, I have no idea who, put a smaller teddy bear in between the big teddy bear and the bunny. I just love when people add to it, especially on theme.
Your primary career is not in the arts but in sustainability and tech. How does your art intersect with these other industries?
It definitely intersects with sustainability. Environmental sustainability is something that I care very passionately about, and so I put in a huge amount of effort to use art supplies and materials that are sustainable. Most of the materials that I use are objects that I find around the house or secondhand things from Craigslist or from thrift stores like Goodwill.
I would like to make some more pieces that have a stronger environmental message to them, beyond what I’m doing as an artist.
You’re an active artist, and your work follows your interests in sustainability and social justice. Are you planning to expand the bench project or start any new projects?
There are a few projects being planned. one wish. We're nearing the end of the holiday season for this year, and so I asked the community to donate any ball Christmas ornaments they have. I would like to make a giant piece of sculpture that requires hundreds of these ball ornaments and resembles a big hot air.
That's one project that I'm looking forward to. I’m also shifting gears more into the public sphere. I feel like I've gotten inspired by other friends and artists who do real Public Art, if you will. There is the Mountain View Aquatic Center, they're building this new facility, and there is a call out for artists. I'm planning to submit a proposal to the heads of the project. It's going to be this giant Hot Tub scene that I’m really excited to develop more.
I've got a few other concepts in the works as well. There's this other concept that uses the element and excitement of surprise, and works with my community again. I'm looking to make “surprise appearances,” without asking for permission, of this dog I have in random places. Either way, I've got a number of projects in the making.
The bench project gained attention on Facebook and Instagram, evolving in its own ways. How does your social media play into bringing the community to your art?
Social media has really helped me connect with people in the community. I have not mastered social media, but as an artist I post things there when I've created something or when I have a new exhibition. I'd love to learn how to engage with people, even more so than I do now. When people take pictures with their dogs or their kids and then they share photos online, I think that sort of adds to that community.
Do you have any advice for budding artists, young creators and other people who are looking to start similar projects as yourself?
I would love to inspire artists out there to do what I do. I would love to see, especially with artists who are challenging traditional museums and art galleries, to make their own bench as a way to display their work and spread our message to the world.
It’s a way that we can communicate with the world. And for me, you know, my message is to spread joy and happiness. And I would be so delighted if more people wanted to do that as well. I'm more than happy to show people how to do it. I've learned a few things along the way, and I think it would be fantastic if, let's say, a year from now, we have a Google map with pins and dots that show these bench projects around the world. We could blog about each other's work, and exchange artwork between benches.
I would just love to see that happen, and I'd be really happy to help anyone get that started.