A Colorful Social Conscience
by Kelly Kasulis
The evidence of Wen-Ti Tsen’s colorful life congests his at-home Cambridge art studio. Shelves are heavy with rolled papers and sketchbooks, slumping downward with the threat of collapse. In the next room, a paint-splattered drop cloth lines the floor. Using a 2” x 4” wooden stick to reach over piles of artwork and flip on the light switches, Tsen has just enough aisle space to view his pieces from afar. His life’s work is in this room, everything from a prototype sculpture for a public art project to a diorama-like sculpture that dates back to the Vietnam War.
Sitting down and catching his breath after hauling a 4’ x 8’ painting onto the easel, Tsen digs up a folder with plans for his next piece, set to show next summer.
“It’s [going] to show that Chinatown is made of people – to mark Chinatown as a territory,” he said, shuffling through the papers. Tsen has been combating the gentrification of Chinatown, Boston’s poorest neighborhood, since his first mural project tributing the community in 1985. The neighborhood’s rent prices skyrocketed over the years, thinning the Asian population from 70 percent in 1990 to 46 percent by 2010, according to a report published by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. An immigrant from China himself, Tsen collaborated last September with the Chinese Progressive Association for the interactive piece “Flagging Chinatown,” a series of vibrant flags with words like “Protect Residents” and “Reclaim Housing” printed across them in bold, commanding letters.
“He’s an artist who has a very strong social conscience and is really interested in making art an avenue for collective expression,” said Lydia Lowe, co-director of Boston’s Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). “People really recognize and identify his work.”