“As a child, drawing was a way I could both fit in and stand out,” says Cecilia Wong Kaiser, an American of Chinese descent who grew up in Gaffney, South Carolina.
Kaiser was born in Burma, now Myanmar, and emigrated with her parents and older sister when she was three, first to Hong Kong and then the United States. Her father was a doctor and retrained in his specialty, pathology, in Long Branch, New Jersey, following which he landed a job in South Carolina.
“We were the first Asians in town — the first Asians many people had ever seen. Some people openly protested our being there. This was the early ’70s and things were tense,” remembers Kaiser.
Still, she had a good childhood, and as a talented young student she knew at an early age that education would be her ticket to a wider world.
While studying art at Brown University, however, Kaiser was criticized for the work she was doing. Her senior thesis was a series of oil painting portraits of chairs in the corner of a room. At the time, the trend was large abstracts and because of Kaiser’s subject matter, her professors expressed concern that she didn’t recognize her oppression.
Kaiser realized it was an accurate assessment, and that experience was reminiscent of an earlier incident she had when she was 12. By that time, her father was a professor of pathology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and she remembers a colleague of his asking why all the people in her drawings were white. Until then, Kaiser had never thought about it. These were the people she knew and saw. “I am the American Dream coming true. Hello!” Kaiser recalls with a laugh.
Kaiser’s experience in college left her feeling as if she didn’t love painting enough or perhaps she loved it too much to make a go of it as career. After graduation, she went to fashion school and secured two internships that took her to London. Despite her love of fashion, however, again it was not the industry in which she wanted to make a career. Kaiser returned home — her parents were then living in Alabama — wondering what she should do with her life.
In addition to her artistic skills, Kaiser was adept with language and writing. As the child of immigrants who came to the United States specifically to give their daughters the best chance at living a good life, her father, not surprisingly, suggested she study law, which is when Kaiser first moved to California.
Kaiser earned her law degree at UC Davis, and following graduation clerked for U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr., during which time she worked on the notorious Unabomber case. It was also in law school that Kaiser met her husband, a German lawyer who was in the United States doing research. They dated for two years, and Kaiser returned with him to Germany, where they married in 2000.
But “it was difficult being a biracial couple in Germany,” says Kaiser. They continued their careers in law, but soon returned to the United States, spending several years in New York before settling in the Bay Area after their daughter was born.
“My daughter was eight years old. I was volunteering at the San Francisco Museum of Art, spending my time looking at other people’s paintings, talking about other people’s paintings. At home, I must have said to my husband one too many times, ‘I could do some of these,’” says Kaiser with a laugh.
Leading up to her 50th birthday, Kaiser’s husband rented a gallery and challenged her to have it filled with artwork in three months. “I had to paint 25 paintings, and I hadn’t painted in years,” says Kaiser, “but I’m also very good with deadlines.”
That was in 2018, and Kaiser has been committed to her art ever since. In that time, she and her family also moved to Rancho Santa Fe, joining her sister, a longtime San Diego resident, and her parents, who retired here. “Being in San Diego during the pandemic turned out to be another stroke of incredible luck,” says Kaiser.
In terms of inspiration, Kaiser believes she has finally found the perfect place to express herself as she wants to. “I don’t want to document anything big. I don’t do paintings about angry subject matter. I paint the moments that are important to me.”
Kaiser’s solo exhibition, Blue Sky, opens January 17 at La Jolla’s BFree Studio, followed by an opening reception on January 21 and an artist talk on January 26.