Tessa Hulls was haunted by a phrase, “guided by ghosts, the ones we held along the way.”
The phrase became the name of her exhibition at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH). In “Guided by Ghosts: The Ones We Held Along the Way,” Hulls combines history and personal narrative. Research is the foundation of her artistic process. Reading allowed Hulls to unravel the history of Chinese-American culture in Monterey Bay and synthesize it in her artwork.
“I want to examine how we’re shaped by our pasts, both personally and on larger scales,” Hulls said. “I want the people who see the show to really examine the idea of history as something that’s static, to look at how [history is] still informing the way they move through the present.”
Monterey Bay was once home to multiple Chinatowns, but xenophobia and discrimination diminished Chinese American presence in the area. Hulls’ timeline includes an 1878 article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel headlined “The Chinese Problem.” The clipping highlights the hostility faced by immigrants to Monterey Bay. The end of Santa Cruz’s Chinatown came when a flood destroyed it in the mid-20th century. The city never rebuilt it.
“History needs somebody to serve as the conduit to keep it alive,” Hulls said. “[…] There isn’t much of a Chinese American community in the Monterey Bay region anymore, there’s just no one there to tell the story.”
Her exhibit boasts a collection of gouache paintings, Hulls’ preferred medium due to its buildable, changeable properties. Rich hues and detailed geometric patterns make her paintings stand out.
Along with archival photos and Hulls’ paintings, a flurry of pages from the artist’s sketchbook are strewn across the walls. Her notes and sketches display messages like, “Draw great auntie’s shaking hand dropping wontons into the wok,” and “My mother wrote her journals in code so she could protect the truth…”
“Lack of cultural knowledge as being something that so many of us are enacting,” Hulls said. “Wounds that are so integrated, that it almost seems in visible.”
Hulls’ hand-painted timeline outlining Chinese-Californian history since the 16th century stretches along the perimeter of the gallery. The events are color-coded to indicate the scope of each event — from her life to Monterey Bay, to national and international affairs.
“The main [event] most people will have heard of is the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Hulls said.
Since many Chinese Americans grew produce and sold it on the streets using traditional hanging baskets, cities outlawed holding hanging baskets. The U.S. government also outlawed the shipment of bones oversees to prevent Chinese Americans from practicing their custom of returning bones of the deceased to where they were born.
“Guided by Ghosts” revisits facts that are often overlooked, cloistered away in dusty textbooks, or ignored because people are ashamed to remember them. The legacy of discrimination still haunts Monterey Bay today, and Hulls wants to expose the ghosts.
In the middle of the gallery, a small table holds two books about the history of Chinese immigration to Monterey Bay for visitors to peruse. Alongside them, visitors are invited to play a card game which asks questions like, “what foods did you grow up eating?” and “what languages are spoken in your home?”
“We really wanted to give people an inside view, what a personal story looks like within the context of something regional, and then also international,” said Whitney Ford-Terry, MAH’s exhibition catalyst. “How does your story matter within the context of this larger narrative?”
Hulls’ MAH exhibit builds on her research for her graphic novel “Feeding Ghosts,” which explores integration, generational narratives of trauma and the collision of identity and history. “Guided by Ghosts” is her space to channel her creative expression and act as a conduit for stories waiting to be told.
Hulls’ dedication to invigorating history is also the result of memories connected to her grandmother Sun Yi. Mental illness kept Yi from pursuing writing as a career but now Hulls champions her grandmothers lost story by living with creative practice as her guiding principle.
“I joke and say that I think my grandmother is a very prevalent ghost because the amount of serendipity that’s happened in my life after I started working on this graphic novel about her has been almost unbelievable,” Hulls said. “I just look up and say ‘alright, message received. You want your story out there, I’ll do the work for you.”
“Guided by Ghosts: The Ones We Held Along the Way” is on display at MAH’s third floor Art Forum Gallery and will remain in Santa Cruz until June 23.