Born during his parents’ flight from Cambodia in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide, Andrew Hem grew up poised in the balance between two cultures — the rural animistic society of his Khmer ancestors, and the dynamic urban arts of the tough Los Angeles neighborhood where his family eventually came to rest. Fascinated by graffiti at an early age, he honed his skills with graphics and composition on the walls of the city before following a passion for figure drawing to a degree in illustration from Art Center College of Design. Working in gouache, oil and acrylic, he weaves atmospheric, richly textured narratives in a vivid palette of twilight blues enlivened by swaths of deep red and splashes of golden light. With a new art book in hand, we sat down with Andrew to get a quick glimpse into his mind as an artist. Read below for the full interview…
What was the biggest cultural impact travelling in Southeast Asia and South America that you encountered that had a direct influence in your art?
Andrew: Seeing how people live in a third world and how materials things don’t matter.
Earlier this year you undertook your biggest piece to date in terms of size. How did you approach this project and what was your creative process like?
Andrew: Pretty intense! Lots of sleepless nights and starting at a blank canvas, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I love the process of painting.
Your work definitely has a dream-like state and I feel you try to explore that realm. Do the figures in your work represent dream archetypes? If so, do they sometimes indicate similar things about the your waking life?
Andrew: I like mixing dreams with real life. The figure is kind of like a hybrid of what is real and what is not.
Dreams very often predict the future, or at least show us possible futures. Is your work in any way precognitive towards your own journey?
Andrew: I’m really into possibilities; how every decision you make in life will lead to another door in that direction.
Your work is now apart of the exhibition at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. This mission is to inspire contemplation towards the people of Cambodia. What is it like being able to use your art to help the people and to be able to bring awareness to the failed potential of children there?
Andrew: It is amazing. I want to help out in any way I can to inspire the kids in Cambodia. My future goal is to one day take a trip there again and just paint murals all day.
Having roots in graffiti, could you weigh in on the subject that more street artists and their artwork, which have been traditionally marginalized, are being shown in museums like the MOCA in Los Angles and galleries. Do you feel that you’ve been a part of this evolution of street art and the fact that it is beginning to be considered a legitimate art form?
Andrew: I’ve seen graffiti and been following it for many decades. I think it has come a long way and it is amazing to see people you used to paint with now making a living off of graffiti. I cant really say that I’ve been a part of this evolution. But I can say that I’ve been a part of the street evolution in the west side.
What are some of your favorite Asian Films?
Andrew: Seven Samurai, Ip Man 1 and 2, and Shogun Assassin.
Tell us a bit about your new book ‘Dreams Towards Reality’ and why you felt right now was the right time to unleash it upon the world?
Andrew: I feel like I produce so much work and wanted people to see my work when I began. Originally, I wanted over 100+ paintings in the book but we had to edit it out to make the book more simpler.
Lastly, what is a general piece of advice you could give to artists in this day & age?
Andrew: Do what makes you happy.
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