‘The banter, I love the banter. I think that’s why I’m doing so well in Ireland’ – The Irish Times

A colourful pathway led Jinny Ly to move to Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic, of all times, to change her life over again. An American textile artist of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, she settled in Dublin incredibly quickly and in jig-time has completed an MFA in Fine Arts at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), was selected as one of 15 emerging artists to exhibit at the RDS Visual Art Awards Exhibition, made lots of friends, and had her first baby to boot.

The eldest of four, Jinny Ly was born in 1984 and raised near Oakland, California, where Chinatown is home to many Vietnamese refugees. “My family had a noodle restaurant. My parents started a fishmongering business,” Ly says.

Her family history is one of fleeing and emigration. Both her parents were born in Vietnam of Chinese descent. Her maternal great-grandparents left Swatow, China, in 1943 to go to Saigon, Vietnam, due to famine and Japanese occupation. Her father’s side was also in Vietnam for generations, though “my Dad has been really good at not talking about it”. They were later boat people after the fall of Saigon. When she is back in Vietnam, Ly, the “family historian”, quizzes her grandmother in Teochew dialect. “My artwork is based on my family history and my life,” Ly says.

Ly studied textile art at San Jose State University. “I come from three generations of seamstresses, so it was a natural move. I discovered I had a talent for it,” she says.

Ly put herself through college by working as a data analyst in Silicon Valley and left college debt-free, but after working in tech for 10 years, she left corporate life around 2013, going home to help run the family business.

Jinny is not her real name. As a techie aware of search engine optimisation she discovered searching for “Jenny Ly” threw up way more results than “Jinny Ly”. “If the actors can have aliases and stage names, I can have one which is only slightly different from my real name. Jinny is actually what my family calls me in Vietnam. They have a hard time saying the E.”

After her grandparents died, and Trump’s election, she decided “it’s time for a change”, and went to France, “on a whim”. Ly lived in Paris for more than three years, became fluent in French and married a Frenchman who was “sweet and kind”, but the marriage did not last. Wanting to go back to textiles for a master’s degree, she brought some cool-headed data analysis to her next move. “I need an English-speaking country. I want to stay in Europe. I need nice people. I had visited Ireland a few times and loved it here,” Ly says.

On holiday with a friend living here Kalle Korpela, from Finland but reared in Ireland, she toured the Ring of Beara on his motorbike. “It was just lovely. We met tonnes of people in the weirdest places. A pub where this guy with no teeth was so welcoming and so kind, in the complete middle of nowhere. You could just have chats with anyone. I loved it,” Ly says.

She moved to Dublin in July 2020 for a master’s at NCAD just as lockdown eased. A mad time to move, “but I figured, why not?” A lot of madder things happened in my life”, Ly says.

She had saved for her master’s, and even with Ireland’s living costs, it made economic sense. Her degree cost €28,000; in the US it would have been €100,000.

“Dublin was a very different place when I came here. It was empty! All the locals were around on Pearse Street,” Ly recalls.

“I made some friends in the local area. I was like fresh meat, no tourists were coming around, so I was the newest thing! I got adopted pretty quickly by the locals. I shipped myself to Kalle’s place on Pearse Street because he was the only person I knew in Dublin. And I might have fancied him.” Love blossomed.

Making friends “takes time” but was easier than in Paris. “Because it was lockdown, I had nothing else to do except my course.” Ly made friends with a manager of Creed Coffee Roasters cafe and, through him, met others. “I’m am an artist now and everyone wants to know about the RDS exhibition I’m in. They’re like, Jenny, if you need anything, let us know. That type of community,” she explains.

There were some surprises. “I wasn’t expecting my son! I had a baby in the middle of my degree. That was definitely a surprise. I have polycystic ovarian syndrome so I didn’t think it would happen,” Ly says. She mentions this in case “it helps people realise miracles can happen”. Ly and Kalle’s son, Markus, is 21 months old.

“The more I learned about Irish history, I realised it aligned with my family’s background as immigrants or refugees, and how they had hardships. The Irish had hardships. My family fled from famine back in the 40s. And the Irish also had to emigrate due to famine,” Ly says.

“I feel, as long as you have good character, and you’re a good person at heart, it will take you places here. Being kind takes you a long way. People start to recognise you, and talk to you, and then you build relationships.

“I say friends, because if I needed something, they would be there to help me. Some are from are from the flats, some of them are rough around the edges. But they’re also very kind people.

“I’m a lifer. I’m staying here. Now that I have my son, I can’t imagine having him growing up anywhere else. I grew up in a really rough area. I’m talking shootings, guns, gang violence. On Pearse Street, people say, ‘Oh, it’s really rough here’. I’m like, ‘No, it’s not’. You don’t have a dead body on the road. You don’t have reports of shootings five miles from your house. You don’t have access to guns easily.”

After finishing her master’s this June, Ly was longlisted by curators selecting 109 emerging artists from all degree shows in Irish art colleges for the RDS Visual Art Awards. She made the shortlist of 26, and was selected as one of 15 to exhibit at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, platforming into the professional artworld.

Being selected was “the second surprise for me”. Ly is exhibiting two textile installations. Consult the I-Ching is a hanging dissecting familial narratives, and how certain stories get passed on from generation to generation.” It looks like a web, using cotton, “from my American background” and silks “from my Chinese background”.

The other piece is Sticky Rice Dumpling, recalling how she and her grandfather made dumplings. “My sculptures and installations tell a story,” Ly says.

Opportunities for artists, like these awards, are better in Ireland than the US, Ly reckons. When she was weighing her move to Ireland she analysed the data, researching population, the number of artists, funding and trends.

“There was an opportunity for me to make it here, because there’s not a tonne of contemporary textile artists,” she says, whereas there are more painters. The lacemaking and linen traditions “tied down my work into Irish textile history”. Contemporary textile art is “still kind of burgeoning”. “The chances of me being able to make something of myself is a lot higher here because of the smaller population,” Ly says.

Life in Ireland, “it’s good crack, actually. The banter, I love the banter. I think that’s why I’m doing so well here.” Ly’s sense of humour got her in trouble in the US sometimes. “You can’t have fun. It’s very sensitive. There’s a gift of the gab here that I really appreciate.”

2023 RDS Visual Art Awards exhibition is at the IMMA from December 8th until March 3rd. See rds.ie/rds-foundation/arts/vaa

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