A black and white portrait of a man on a coloured background with block colours painted over him.

Jonathan Jay Lee

With lockdown making final showcases for Hong Kong’s art students impossible, the illustrator and former professor decided to organise one himself, launching this month at Soho House Hong Kong

By Gavin Yeung    Portrait by Joe Cruz

Students around the world have endured one of the most disrupted school years on record due to the pandemic. But even among class suspensions and entire semesters being moved online, few could imagine their school abruptly shutting down. This was the reality that students at the Hong Kong campus of a prestigious American art and design college woke up to this March, with the news that SCAD Hong Kong would close its doors for good after the end of the spring quarter.

‘I wasn’t truly able to react initially, because when you receive this kind of news you jump to action for everyone around you,’ recounts Soho House Hong Kong member and Taiwanese-American illustrator, Jonathan Jay Lee. Up until the closure, he taught illustration and sequential art at the college. He was then quickly thrown into a new routine of teaching online classes on Zoom, while easing back into the life of a creative freelancer, producing illustrations in his signature vivid style that’s reminiscent of Japanese anime auteur Satoshi Kon.

As creatives living and working in a city that often overlooks the importance of the arts, Lee empathises with the struggles his students face at the beginning of their careers, never mind amidst the vastly uncertain times we currently inhabit. ‘It was very difficult to get my career started in Hong Kong. People didn’t understand why they needed to pay for illustration, and I wanted to be a part of changing that discourse. For me, education was the answer to that. But now that it’s not the case anymore, I was thinking, how do we continue this?’
collage of illustrations of man and his artwork.

'People didn’t understand why they needed to pay for illustration, and I wanted to be a part of changing that discourse'

Above, from left: portrait of Jonathan Jay Lee by Joe Cruz; Still Life by DD Yung; Larry In The Jungle by DD Yung. Below: A Night Out by Jonathan Jay Lee

An illustration of two women sitting at a table.
Despite the college offering the option to take online courses or transfer to its American campuses for the remainder of their degrees, the pandemic has precluded the latter for the majority of students. This has resulted in a sudden loss of in-person networking opportunities that threatens to narrow their future job prospects. The idea of an exhibition to aid their professional development arose, Lee says, when Soho House Hong Kong’s Head of Membership, Alice Lam, approached him to ask if anything could be done for the students. ‘That alone made me super happy to be reminded that the community is ultimately good.’

Taking place at House Studio in Soho House Hong Kong between 3 and 12 December, Lee intends for NextGenHK to be a showcase of young Hong Kong-trained artists and illustrators on the cusp of their careers. Featuring 30 names and more than 100 artworks, the exhibition will also feature artist-made products for sale alongside a special publication available only during the showcase.

‘I’m not a professor anymore, but I still hope to be a mentor in some ways, if I am able to – and this exhibition plays a small part in that,’ says Lee. ‘Students are highly resilient, but they are also at an earlier stage in life, so it’s just a matter of reassurance. But if this is their starting point, then they really have nowhere else to go but up.’

NextGenHK is on show at Soho House Hong Kong’s House Studio, 3 to 12 December

Artists featured in the video: Jonathan Jay Lee, Sze Ki Chong, HOI Hellen Wong, Gaby Teresa, Steven Ho, Julia Marinelli, Kristy Hon, DD Yung, Reana Bachiller

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