Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Edition 06 — Brenda Leong, Curator/Exhibitions Manager

I always knew from a young age I wanted to pursue art but I didn’t have the opportunity or the guidance for it. So that’s where I was fortunate enough to stumble upon AFH.”

Brenda Leong’s love affair with art started between the pages of design magazines and notebooks.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Leong grew up in Boston’s Chinatown. As the first generation to grow up America, she found herself raised in a mix of cultural differences. Leong had been looking for a creative outlet at the time that she discovered AFH in 2002. When she learned that many of her friends were being paid to create art, the idea sparked her interest and led her to AFH’s front door.

Film photography developed by Leong during her time as an AFH participant.

“I knew from a young age that I wanted to pursue art but didn’t have the opportunity or the guidance for it,” she said, referring to the lack of art education at John D. O’Bryant High School. “That’s where I was fortunate enough to stumble upon AFH through my friends.”

Leong remembers her first impression of AFH as one that invoked a feeling of intimidation. A large warehouse on A Street that preceded the current AFH EpiCenter, offered an open but slightly overwhelming atmosphere.

“AFH was a little different. It was very artsy in that it was a warehouse that used to be occupied by a giant printing company,” Leong said, remembering the old location.

Artists For Humanity’s former studio space.

“It was very open, with lots of old windows and brick walls. I just remember feeling intimidated because there were all these dirty easels with paint all over the floor with canvasses. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into.”

Leong began in the Painting Studio but quickly realized that the medium did not speak to her. Eventually drawn by her friends to the Photography Studio, she fell in love with being behind the lens and remained there for the next two to three years.

“My favorite thing about photography is that it’s very hands-on,” she said, emphasizing how this made her appreciate photography more than the other mediums she had worked with. “That was amazing. Back then we mainly focused on black and white film whereas now, I know that the teens do more digital work.”

Photograph by Brenda Leong.

“I really liked the fact that I had to manually put in the film reel, take it out, print it, and get it all set up again. That and being able to hear the mechanics and all the hardware moving, those were my favorite parts, just the whole process.”

Photograph by Brenda Leong.

Leong recalls, somewhat humorously, that she didn’t even mind the smells from the chemicals needed to develop the film. “It just enhances the experience,” she insists.

Ever since she was in middle school, Leong knew that she wanted to be an interior designer. Constantly doodling in school notebooks and dabbling in watercolors, she remembers taking an interest in general arts.

“I was always looking at magazines of interior spaces: looking at all the colors and the patterns and how it all came together.”

Brenda working in the studio as a teen.

Despite this conviction, there were times during her experience in the Painting Studio, especially when she found difficulties in learning how to mix colors, when Leong doubted her abilities as well as the possibility of art as a future. This marked a formative experience while at AFH.

“I felt like maybe it wasn’t for me and maybe art wasn’t the thing.” Leong said, noting how she found herself questioning her work when surrounded by so many other artists at AFH. “Especially because I’d been focused on academics and athletics, this was a completely alien experience. I was wondering ‘What am I doing wrong?’.”

“Eventually, I just learned to accept that I couldn’t be too precise about my art practice—I was just starting out.”

Brenda with her Studio in a School Summer Interns, 2018.

But from this struggle, Leong discovered success. In the transition from the Painting Studio to the Photography Studio, Leong found her place at AFH.

“What made it [the switch] so memorable for me was when I went off-site to photograph the Boston area. I borrowed a camera over the weekend with some black and white film and shot the Boston Public Library. It was in the winter and I had to shoot snow. When I finally printed it—and you never really knew what you took until you printed it — I remember that I got a lot of compliments. That’s when I remembered that even though it was a project I did for myself, there was something about it, that success, that pushed me forward to continue to make more work.”

Brenda taught the Studio in a School interns how to store, ship, catalogue, and curate works of art.

After Leong graduated from John D. O’Brien in 2005, she attended Syracuse University. During college, she found herself dabbling within the arts, trying out a series of arts-related majors before settling on interior design, for which she received a Bachelor’s degree in 2009.

Upon graduation, Leong found herself in an unforgiving job market- right in the middle of an economic recession. It wasn’t until 2012 that she returned to AFH, this time as the assistant to AFH’s Founder and Executive/Artistic Director, Susan Rodgerson.

Brenda interfaces with a client on-site. Behind them, AFH paintings are displayed.

Much of Leong’s AFH experience, as a teen and as Exhibitions Manager, is shaped by the void that AFH can fill. It fills the void of gallery space, the void of artistic expression in traditionally non-art fields, the void of art education in public schools. To her, art is not just a medium that is meant for aesthetic value but a concept that is inescapable. This notion lent itself to the variety of skills Leong credits to AFH that she might not have acquired elsewhere.

As Artists For Humanity’s Curator/Exhibitions Manager, Brenda curates exhibitions both on and off-site.

“I think that the organization makes a difference in the community by filling the void in arts education. A lot of Boston public schools do not offer or incorporate art into their curriculum so I think in order to be a well-rounded person, you can’t just focus on studying traditional academics. You need visual arts.”

Leong hopes the unique learning opportunity that AFH offers, and the intellectual and creative freedom that come with it, continues to inspire the community of AFH while opening pathways for teens.

Brenda with Natalie and Jake Lemle, who later became AFH board members.

“They are really open and promote individuality and creativity in your work,” she said, speaking to how this discipline applies to life. “They are the ones who opened my eyes to the idea that you can make a living by creating art by thinking outside of the box. My family didn’t have the means to send me to art school but I was able to create a collection of work at AFH.”

“This collective success story is what made me realize that art is really what I want to do.”

Photo by Gesi Schilling.

Leong is currently Curator/Exhibitions Manager at Artists For Humanity and resides in Boston. This interview was conducted and written by Grace Yuh and Jane Elmets. Edited for clarity by Lauren Pellerano Gomez.

CREATIVE JOBS FOR CREATIVE TEENS