Art of activism: Bishop’s student hopes to share her advocacy of social justice throughout La Jolla

Katelyn Wang of The Bishop's School painted a vestibule at the school as part of her advocacy for social justice through art.
Katelyn Wang of The Bishop’s School in La Jolla painted a vestibule at the school as part of her advocacy of social justice through art.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Katelyn Wang has spent the past year using art to share her passion for social justice with her fellow students at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla. She hopes to spend the next year expanding that into the larger community.

“At the end of the day, we all just want to be equal,” she said. “The idea of justice should be beneficial to all of us.”

Katelyn, 17, who is Chinese American, won a California State Senate Visual Arts award for her piece “United Fight,” which she said illustrates her journey of Asian American activism.

"United Fight" by Katelyn Wang expresses her reaction to acts of hate against Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Courtesy of Katelyn Wang)

The piece places a painting of a photo of Katelyn and her friends at a “Stop Asian hate” protest over several newspaper articles about anti-Asian-American hate crimes with line drawings of American landmarks. It’s “really complicated,” she said.

Katelyn, a senior at Bishop’s, said receiving the state Senate award was gratifying and “felt like an affirmation for my journeys in art and activism.”

“I love the arts,” she said, noting that she performs Chinese folkloric dance in Lunar New Year celebrations around the county.

She also leads the East Asian Student Association at Bishop’s as another way to raise awareness of her culture.

The rise of COVID-19 — first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 — and subsequent reports of anti-Asian hate crimes spurred Katelyn to focus on social justice.

The reports, along with personal experiences of her friends and her parents wanting to buy a gun for protection, saturated her life, increasing her fear, she said.

She said a lack of organized response from her school community surprised her. Many of her Asian American peers were silent, and no mention of the issue was made in her classes, even her class on Chinese language and culture.

“I felt really upset,” Katelyn said. “I realized that it was just perpetuating the Asian stereotype that we’re all silent. Culturally, there is this idea that we should not get involved in more political or bold things because safety is the No. 1 concern.

“Someone’s got to say something because I’m just not comfortable in an environment where no one says anything.”

Katelyn also recounted her Chinese teacher scolding her for not correcting others who mispronounced her last name.

“Wang” should be pronounced “Wong,” she said, “but because I don’t like to correct people, I just say ‘Wang.’”

Her teacher’s reaction to the mispronunciation was “eye-opening,” Katelyn said. “I forgot who I am. … Now I’m trying to fight for others.”

“At the end of the day, we all just want to be equal. The idea of justice should be beneficial to all of us.”

— Katelyn Wang

She wrote an article for her school’s online student publication last year.

“As students that go to Bishop’s, who really value diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, we’ve got to get conversations going,” she said. “I just tried to take a stance for the Asian American community.”

From there, Katelyn organized the Bishop’s AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Awareness assembly, gave speeches on the importance of standing up to injustices, and eventually blended her visual arts skills with her advocacy.

“I create art for everything,” Katelyn said. She added that she turned to art to help her understand the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement and its “dimensions of activism.”

She said she applied the same multidimensional approach to her social justice work for Asian Americans, creating a series of multimedia pieces, the third of which was the award-winning “United Fight.”

Last summer, she received permission from Bishop’s Head of School Ron Kim to paint a former locker vestibule with her “Justice Mural,” a four-walled painting that features a sunrise and the words “Rise with justice.”

“Because so much of what I do is speaking and trying to communicate, I wanted to have a physical message of my visions for justice,” she said.

The sunrise “embodies our new beginnings,” Katelyn said. “Every day when we wake up, when we step on campus, we can choose to live in our actions with justice.”

She said the four-walled mural “engulfs people and [leads them] to reflect.”

Art “breaches a lot of barriers," says Katelyn Wang, who painted this door at The Bishop's School.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

This summer, Katelyn painted a classroom door in Bishop’s visual arts building with a quote from poet and activist Amanda Gorman and hopes it will inspire others.

Art “breaches a lot of barriers, it unites us, and I think even if it’s just a classroom door, you walk by it and it adds color to the space,” Katelyn said.

To further her art and advocacy, Katelyn is undertaking an independent study in visual arts through her school, in which she will plan and execute a project to paint more social justice-themed murals throughout La Jolla.

“I’ll be going around La Jolla and connecting with businesses,” showing them her portfolio and asking to put a mural on their walls, she said.

Katelyn said the project’s goals are to brighten the community, attract people to La Jolla, “give back to a place that has given me voice, and find my visions of justice permanent homes.” ◆