Artist Arlina Cai holding a large, abstract painting in her studio.

For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we're highlighting the practice of Arlina Cai. Watch the full interview on Instagram, or continue reading below.

Where are you from and where are you currently based?

I’m a Brooklyn-based abstract artist. I grew up not too far away in central New Jersey. As a child, I always wanted to escape that quiet, suburban life, but now that I’ve lived in New York City for over ten years, I look back at that time very fondly.

I paint to create visions and feelings of what is and could be. I want my work to feel like a beacon of warmth, a moment of peace, and a reminder that we are all the same inside.

Describe the kind of work you create - how is it made, what inspires you?

I paint soft abstract compositions. Oftentimes you can almost see something, an eye, a bird, a flower, but it’s not fully there. My materials are quite simple. I paint flat on the floor with acrylics on unstretched, raw canvas. It feels very physical when the canvas is on the floor because I’m constantly moving around it and looking at it from multiple angles.

Right now, I’m very moved by nature. I love watching the changing seasons and observing how that impacts my internal landscape. It reminds me of how I have also changed, how all of us are constantly changing.

How long have you been working in this style or with these materials? How did you first begin working in this way?

I’ve always used acrylic paint. The first subjects I took very seriously in my work were figures. I used to almost exclusively paint faces and bodies in a very dark mood.

When I decided to paint full-time, I moved away from that style. I think I was at a point in life when I was going through very intense mental change, and that change became visible through my work. I was letting go of a lot of personal baggage. I wanted complete freedom, and I wanted to create art that felt uplifting and filled with light. When I let myself just have fun and be loose with my painting, this is what came out.

Artist Arlina Cai painting soft abstract works in her studio.
Soft abstract paintings installed on a white walls in artist Arlina Cai's studio.

What is a typical day in your studio?

A typical in the studio starts by deciding what I want to work on. I like to have multiple paintings going on at a time, usually all in various sizes. I’ll pull out what I want to continue and prepare new blank canvases if I know I want to start new work.

Once I get started in painting, I let myself wander freely between works as I feel inspired. Sometimes there will be a color in my palette that will trigger something, or a shape I think about, or even the light.

I don’t restrict my process – I let myself paint whatever I want to paint. I have to get it all out, but not every single piece gets shared. I spend a lot of time reflecting on my work and deciding which pieces I want to continue or scrap.

Painting also makes me very hungry, so I also have multiple snack breaks throughout the day. That’s very important!

What moments in your process do you enjoy the most?

In my process, I love those moments when a painting is on the precipice – when it feels like it’s about to either become really amazing or turn into trash. When I lose myself in my process at these points, I think that’s when the most magic comes through. It’s a very present moment when I’m very aware of the piece as it comes together but without judgment.

My art is of course an expression of myself, but I don’t make it for the purpose of expressing myself. I see my work more as a vessel for something else. I want it to hold and express universal truths, not just my own personal experience.

Arlina Cai

What does 'heritage' mean to you?

Heritage to me means honoring where you came from. When I was growing up, my parents used to always tell me, “You have a Chinese face,” to remind me that while I may be born and raised in America, I also have roots in another culture.

How do you think about culture and identity in relation to your work?

I don’t paint about having a Chinese-American identity, but I think that experience profoundly influences my work. My work expresses my beliefs about the world and my values, which are rooted in where I come from. I think in that way, that is how my art captures my cultural identity.

I’m probably simplifying this and I’m not a scholar, but I feel like Western art generally wants to capture an individual experience or feeling in time and Eastern arts more so wants to capture an ideal. My art is of course an expression of myself, but I don’t make it for the purpose of expressing myself. I see my work more as a vessel for something else. I want it to hold and express universal truths, not just my own personal experience.

Soft, abstract gestural paintings on canvas by artist Arlina Cai in her studio.
Artist Arlina Cai standing next to a large framed canvas in her studio.