It was a frog that first convinced La Jolla resident Maggie Shen to become a fine artist.
Shen, 39, had enjoyed making art since her parents exposed her to it as a child in suburban Taipei, Taiwan. But she had planned on becoming a veterinarian — a choice that her school district required all students to make by age 14.The croaker lying on Shen’s biology-class dissection table had another choice in mind for her, however.
“I still remember that frog,” Shen said. “That really hit me. I was told to poke through his heart, which was still beating, with a knife. But I couldn’t do it. He was still alive!”
Shen’s Plan-B career flowered into a series of site-specific soft sculptures she installed in public places from 2001 to 2005 in Taiwan. She called the series — which emphasized the softness and steadiness of feminine strengths via stretchy fabrics — Penetration of Flexibilities.
“This is the way I express intimacy,” Shen said while touring the Light around an untitled similar work, featuring white netting and fiber optics, that she installed for a recent show at La Jolla’s Misfit Pictures Gallery. “I like creating things that cannot be possessed, that cannot be viewed easily as subjects.”
Then, until about 2016, Shen went through a period where she said she “divorced her art." She used it primarily as a psychotherapy medium, working with cancer patients and children with trauma in private practice in Pennsylvania — where she first settled in the U.S. — and then with children suffering from emotional issues in Switzerland, where she also taught art in boarding school.
"I struggled with how to do what I’m good at and make a living at the same time," she said. “I did not want to accept that I am a fine artist.”
Then, when Shen and her husband had a daughter seven years ago, she said, it was necessary to reconnoiter her career once again.
“I worked with very difficult cases, which was fine before I had a child,” she said. “Then it became very difficult to do the job.”
When Shen’s husband accepted a post as a physicist for General Atomics three years ago, the family relocated to La Jolla. And now, with a kid at La Jolla Elementary School most of each weekday, Shen is diving back into her passion.
“People started to ask me to do installation again,” Shen said. Shows in Carlsbad and Escondido came first. The response was positive. Then, Shen opened her own studio at the Art on 30th gallery in North Park.
“I feel like art is something I’m really good at doing and I enjoy doing so much,” Shen says, “although it doesn’t bring me so much financial enjoyment!”
IF YOU GO: Art on 30th, 4434 30th St., San Diego, is staging a free open house that includes Shen’s work from 6-8 p.m. Saturday March 23, arton30th.com