How Do You Keep Your Heart Open? (For Susan)

Billboard in Omaha, Nebraska, USA

When For Freedoms asked me to create a billboard design featuring a question in advance of the 2020 election, I came back to a question that has resonances personally and politically.

“How do you keep your heart open?” is a central question in my art practice. I have returned to it over several years. Whenever I think of this question, I think of Susan O’Malley (1976–2015). Susan and I shared overlapping interests in psychological well-being and happiness. Making art about emotions (which are sometimes presumed to be unworthy of serious consideration) requires emotional vulnerability and outsized courage. These are traits that made Susan and her life and legacy so remarkable.

To me, “keeping one’s heart open” means experiencing setbacks, adversities, pain, loss, or grief—such as witnessing injustices and conflicts in the world—and responding not by becoming numb, cynical, or withdrawn, but by steadfastly remaining vulnerable and feeling, open to trusting others, choosing optimism, and staying engaged. It is to heal wounds with scar tissue alive with nerves, not hiding behind protective armor that desensitizes, distances, and diminishes the possibilities of humanization.

To keep one’s heart open is to embrace a mindset of abundance, rather than a mindset of scarcity; to opt for connection and generosity, rather than self-preservation; and to work towards belonging, rather than othering.

American media and culture gravitate towards stories with satisfying conclusions. We are discomfited by ambiguity, open-ended-ness, and holding two opposing ideas in mind. Sometimes we react to suffering as a problem that needs to be fixed. Yet, life for individuals means encountering uncertainty and pain. Humanity’s survival requires us to rise to immense challenges. How will we deal with global income inequality and climate disasters? We can’t seek easy, comfortable answers. We can’t be “saved” by “strong leaders.” We can’t end racism without discomfort, conflict, and making mistakes. We can become more adaptive and resilient by letting go of the need for tidy resolution, learning to tolerate ambiguity, and living with the full spectrum of human emotion.

I chose to create the final billboard design as a pencil drawing. Normally, I make art that looks more “finished.” With calligraphy, I’d usually ink and digitize it to remove evidence of sketching, labor, process, and mistakes. But keeping your heart open isn’t tidy and flawless. It isn’t about achieving closure. It is a continual process of exploration, feeling, risk-taking, and revising.

Billboards & Fine Art Edition, London, UK

In September 2021, a new limited edition print by Avant Arte was released in collaboration with For Freedoms. The print—printed by Make-Ready—was accompanied by a billboard on Rye Lane, Peckham, London and appeared on digital screens (thanks to W1 Curates) on Oxford Street in London. The artwork appeared alongside a work by Hank Willis Thomas. To celebrate, Hank and I had a warm conversation via Instagram Live.

Christine Wong Yap, How Do You Keep Your Heart Open? (For Susan), 2020–2021, Pencil on paper, artists’ tape, 3.5 x 11 inches.

Billboard locations: Blair High Road, Omaha, Nebraska; Rye Lane, Peckham, London; Oxford Street, London.

Originally commissioned by For Freedoms and Unfinished, in a campaign reaching all 50 states across the United States, plus D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands through the election. Along with more than 75 artists, our billboards aim to promote civic joy and themes of #The2020Awakening: listening, healing, awakening, and justice.

Eric Liu and Yo-Yo Ma discuss the question posed in my billboard, “How do you keep your heart open?” on Unfinished Live’s Democracy and Voice episode (24:47), Tuesday, November 10, 2020.

Photographs by Jeff Scroggins, courtesy of For Freedoms; and Colin Ross, Tim Craig, and Andria Lo, Courtesy of Avant Arte.