Printmaker and painter Manny Tang comes to Illinois by way of Taipei, Taiwan and New York, New York. Her art is displayed throughout the state in galleries and small businesses, but our interview began at her home in Loves Park. When her husband Don Foster invited me in, it took me a minute to find the woman whose artist name is China Cat. She was in another room, leaning out of a window feeding Gracie, a feral cat who stops by for food and attention.
"She was very skittish at first. It took her a full year before we earned her trust, but now she is here every day."
Cats have influenced Manny's life for many years. Her mother fed strays, and she and Don have two house cats named Yasha and Shumai. They do not have children.
"My whole life, I've never wanted children. I've never had that urge. And of course people always told me, 'You're young. You don't know what you're missing.' But I didn't and don't want children."
What she wants is to create strong feminist art that appeals to the female gaze. The "female gaze" is a term that represents the perpsective or sensibility of the female viewer. She said, "I don't create art for men to look at. I mean, anyone can look at it, but my erotic art is for the female gaze."
She continued, "The girls and women in my art never smile because too often women are expected to look or be pleasant for others. So many people feel entitled to tell us to smile."
Manny invited me into her kitchen, which is where her studio is.
"First of all, my studio is not sexy at all. It is very homey and cluttered. Just stuff everywhere, constantly. And eventually my work spills over to the kitchen counter. But I love the spot because I have the patio door where I get a sufficient amount of sunlight, and I love working in sunlight."
The natural light brings out the detail and vibrancy of the prints and paintings that are taped to her kitchen wall. She said she knows that a lot of artists put inspirational work up in their studios, but her wall is filled with her own work.
She said, "I have short term memory so if I don't put my work up there, I don't know what I did."
Manny explained why she tapes her work to the wall: "My husband is very particular when it comes to putting nails in a wall so that is the reason I don't have any paintings up there because that requires the 3M thing, which I don't like."
The "3M thing" she referred to are those hanging strips many people use to hang framed art or heavy photographs in their homes and offices.
Before Manny fully committed to being the artist China Cat with the slogan Cuteness has a darkside too, her life took a couple turns. The first turn was when she was a truant teenager.
She admitted, "I hated middle school and high school. If you add up all the days I was in school back then, it would only add up to one year. I think I went to nine schools, including middle school, because my parents were trying to get me away from my bad friends."
As she matured out of her teens, Manny got serious and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, which she loved.
"I ate up everything they had to offer me. At that time I wanted to be an illustrator, but then I realized that in New York there were so many talented illustrators." At that realization, Manny took a second turn.
"It was so competitive that I just stopped. I stopped creating for 20 years. It was too painful to paint because I knew I was the one who broke it off. So I just worked 9-to-5 jobs and did the responsible thing." Manny stressed that she didn't think pursuing art was irresponsible, but that she was compelled to get a fulltime job to support herself.
During that time, she enjoyed a certain freedom in her relationships.
"I tended to date men who were older than me -- men who would spoil me, but I never committed to them. I was very free. I was the heartbreaker."
To appreciate this time of her life, it helps to understand her childhood.
"I was an only child and when my parents went out, I would stay home and watch tv. My grandmother went to bed and I would stay up late watching soap operas. In Taipei, soaps came on at night, too."
Manny had concerns with the story lines.
"The plots always involved women crying, men leaving, men cheating on women -- and in the end, everybody would forgive the men, including the women or the lady that he wronged. I hated it so much. I vowed not to be like any of those women and I vowed I would not date any men who behaved like that."
And she didn't. In 2001, she met Don in New York through mutual friends. "I had a feeling he was someone I could spend a lot of time with." Soon they moved to Illinois. Before they married, Manny went back to school for psychology. She started at Rock Valley College to catch up, then transferred to Rockford University.
"I had to take electives, so I took art classes and that's when I met David Menard."
Menard is an associate professor of art at Rockford University and a member of Fatherless Print Posse. He introduced Manny to printmaking, and encouraged her to stick with it.
"At first I hated it. My first print was miserable. But I fell in love with it after I got past the initial struggles and now I find it to be therapeutic."
Manny graduated from Rockford University in 2007 with a Master of Arts in teaching, with a Bachelor of Science in psychology, and two minors; one in art history and the other in human development.
At Rockford University, Manny gave me a tour of the print lab in the Clark Arts Building. She also walked me through the basics of the printmaking process.
"First you come up with an image you want to transfer onto a lino block. Then you carve the image onto a block of linoleum. You then ink the block with a roller, place the paper over the block, and carefully send it through the press. After that, you put the paper on the drying rack. It takes about two weeks to dry because the ink is made with oil."
She made the process sound simple, but it isn't. Incredible patience and detail go into each cut. Two of her linocuts hang on the wall of the lab. One depicts Frida Kahlo, with her eyebrows knitted together with the word "love."
Manny said, "A few years ago, my health wasn't the greatest. I was bedridden for a long time. In that time, I watched a movie about Frida Kahlo and identified with her. Of course, what I went through was nothing like what she went through, but watching the movie and learning about her helped me regain my health. Also, one of her quotes really spoke to me. She said, 'I am my own muse, the subject I know best, the subject I want to know better.'"
As she healed, she became more committed to artistically expressing her feminist convictions. Look at any piece of Manny's art, and you will see strength, awareness, intention, and vulnerability. Oftentimes, you will see a story.
An example of her visual storytelling is her zodiac series that she started in 2014. She said, "The topic of zodiac has been done by so many artists so many times. What makes my collection unique is that my series is inspired by my friends. I named it 'My Twelve Friends' because my signs are inspired by what I see from my own friends. I think about my friends who are Virgos and think about what they have in common and work with that. I rely on that more than on what's in a book."
She elaborated, "My mother is Virgo and I have a couple friends who are Virgo as well. There are two types, one is the stereotypical 'old secretary who is uptight.' The other type of Virgo is outgoing. They're extroverts and very easy to get along with. They love life and are against the Virgo sterotype. So in my art, my Virgo's head is inside a cage, but the door is open and she's holding a key. It implies that it is up to you to determine what type of Virgo you want to be. You determine whether you will be conservative or adventurous."
Besides the zodiac, Manny's art often includes the influence of BDSM. BDSM stands for bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; and sadism and masochism. Some consider the practice abusive. Others think it is empowering. For Manny, it's personal.
"My artwork is an extension of myself. I'm a human. I'm a sexual being and, of course, there's a sexual side to me as well. I can make a painting or print to express either the oppression of female sexuality -- or I can portray a woman as a dominatrix -- and that's her position in power." She continued, "Also, who doesn't like a little black leather?"
As a teen, Manny rebelled by skipping school. Nowadays, the Phi Beta Kappa member rebels with her art. She fights the stereotypes of weak, crying, defenseless soap opera female characters by painting strong, alert, sexual female characters. And, especially since 2016, China Cat says she has rebelled by donating to organizations and causes she believes in like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and Standing Rock. Furthermore, she is in a constant state of educating people about Taiwan. She says, "Taiwan is a democratic country. We elect our own government and we are the first Asian country to legalize same sex marriage."
After we left her alma mater, we drove to downtown Rockford, parked, and got on our feet. Manny gave me an outdoor tour of the galleries and businesses that have impacted her, including Pirate Ninja Print Shop, where she had her first student showing and sale. It was a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon and there were many pedestrians out and about. Every time we crossed the street or turned the corner, someone would see Manny, smile, stop and say "Hi" to her, including Jessie Prouty. He's an artist who runs Tawdry Toast Artcade. He met Manny at Rockford University seven years ago and refers to her as "Rockford Royalty" in the arts community.
He continued , "She's kind of a 'jack-of-all-trades.' She's a renaissance woman in her own right. She has fantastic style, she cooks, and she can do your hair. What I've always loved about her artistic style is that she is consistent in detail and level of finish across any medium."
After I finished interviewing Jessie, I found Manny around the corner coming out of GEM. GEM is an acronym for Gather - Engage - Make and is home and host to art and art events. She emerged with a one-of-a-kind picture frame, a work of art in and of itself. In less than five minutes, she had supported a small business; a simple local gesture that makes a world of difference.
As we concluded our interview, Manny praised the art community of Rockford for being talented and supportive and exciting. She invited the public to visit downtown Rockford:
"Come take a look. The businesses are booming and the art scene is thriving. We have 6 Finger Tattoo opening on November 30. It's the only woman-owned tattoo shop in Rockford and it's near Bennie's Cleaners which has been home to 'Rockford ArtScene at Bennie's Cleaners.' And there are new restaurants popping up. We have Gallery 317 and GEM is right around the corner. We have so much. If you have a negative association about downtown, come back and check it out."