Cecile Chong: From paper dolls to El Dorado

By Amanda Calvin, Snug Harbor Arts Intern

At the age of 5, Cecile Chong was given a sheet of paper dolls from her mother, who had purchased them at the local store near their home in Quito, Ecuador. After a while, young Cecile became bored of the store-bought dolls, so she grabbed some scissors, a pencil and paper, and made her own. Quickly realizing her newfound passion, she declared in a composition that she would become an artist when she grew older. While this goal faded amid the challenges of middle and high school, Chong still found ways to channel her creativity, ultimately deciding to follow her passion for art in college.

Cecile at EFA Studios. Photo courtesy of artspiel.org.
Cecile at EFA Studios. Photo courtesy of artspiel.org.

Now a prominent artist in the New York Metropolitan area, Chong has come a long way from creating paper dolls in Quito. Her inspiration and creativity, however, have remained as vibrant and keen as when she was young.

“I’m very happy to be able to focus on my art right now,” she said. “Those moments, even though I was so young, I found them sublime. I felt that as I grew up, little by little I realized I really enjoyed those moments.”

Now a prominent artist in the New York Metropolitan area, Chong has come a long way from creating paper dolls in Quito. Her inspiration and creativity, however, have remained as vibrant and keen as when she was young.

“I’m very happy to be able to focus on my art right now,” she said. “Those moments, even though I was so young, I found them sublime. I felt that as I grew up, little by little I realized I really enjoyed those moments.”

“It wasn’t so obvious to me,” Chong said regarding her passion for art. “It was just like, ‘oh, I really like this’.”

El Dorado’s first home was at Sunset Park in Brooklyn, overlooking the Manhattan skyline (2017).

The “El Dorado: The New Forty Niners” creator is now a graduate of Queens College with a bachelor’s in studio art, Hunter College with a master’s in education and Parsons School of Design with a master’s in fine art. After completing her undergraduate studies, Chong took a break from making art while she earned her first masters degree, but her hiatus didn’t last long.

“Five years into teaching, I just needed to continue making art, so I started painting again,” she said. “When my sabbatical came up from teaching, I felt that I really needed to go back to school, so I went for my MFA.” Upon graduating from Parsons, Chong resumed teaching while simultaneously creating art. “For many years, I did both,” she said.

Chong’s artistic inspiration, similar to when she was younger, is inspired by her surroundings or challenges that present themselves within her daily life. “A lot of times, I start with the material,” she said. “Materials become cultural signifiers in a way, they’re a layer of identities, histories and cultures.”

In Queens, El Dorado’s luminous elements honored Lewis Latimer’s life’s work with lighting technology (2018).

“What are the things I’m frustrated about that I need to express?” is often a question Chong asks herself when beginning a new artistic endeavor. For “El Dorado,” which currently resides at Snug Harbor in front of The Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, the answer to this question was a key factor in the development of the project.

“I was working on a proposal and I thought about how the (former) president was picking on and blaming immigrants for everything that was wrong in the country. I was in the classroom with my students, most of them coming from immigrant families. It was painful for them, and it was painful for me to see that.” Thinking back to her elementary education, Chong recalled learning about El Dorado (“The Golden”) and the history of conquistadors arriving in the “New World” and demanding gold from the natives. “I thought, what if El Dorado would be found in New York City?”

While pondering this, Chong came across the statistic that 49 percent of New York City households speak a language other than English. “I really grabbed onto that number,” she said, “I decided to make a hundred sculptures and paint 49 of them gold to honor these families.”

El Dorado resided at Wave Hill in the Bronx in 2019.

The sculptures themselves, which Chong calls “Guaguas,” (Quechua for “babies”) were built in reference to the swaddles used by Ecuadorian mothers to carry their children on their backs. “Someone told me that a good swaddle is when the baby can stand on a table like a bottle…there are a lot of plastic bottles in New York.” From this connection, Chong began building the 100 “guaguas” from a plastic bottle base, using a traditional swaddle method to wrap them in plaster burlap, then proceeding to coat each sculpture with a beeswax resin, paint, and fiberglass exterior coating.

Before their arrival at Snug Harbor on Staten Island, Chong’s guaguas traveled to three other boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx. “I thought that in order to make a stand, I should have it travel to the five parts of New York City,” said Chong. Toward the end of 2021, Chong plans to take the sculptures back to her studio and prepare them for their final installation site, Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, near the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan.

Chong’s guaguas sit six feet apart in front of the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art at Snug Harbor

For El Dorado, site specificity is an important element in the project’s meaning and interpretation. “Snug Harbor was my dream location, I just find it extremely idyllic; like a jewel of a place in New York City,” she said. “The fact that it has so much history, and the idea of community… it’s just so meaningful.”

“Sometimes, I feel like the site chooses me,” she said. In Queens, El Dorado resided near the Lewis H. Latimer House, home of the African American inventor of the same name. Chong, recognizing the lack of credit Latimer received for his contributions to light and technology, honored his legacy with El Dorado’s placement outside of the house, the guaguas glowing at night time to further highlight his work.

Similarly, Chong was drawn to Snug Harbor for the site’s unique identity. “The Newhouse Center in itself is such a gem, it is such a unique place,” said Chong, pointing out the dynamic relationship between the history of the building and the contemporary art it houses. “Because of its history, I decided to make the placement like a compass needle or like an abstract boat…I wanted to make them blue and white because it reminds me of the islands.”

Closeup of guagua sculptures on Snug Harbor’s front lawn

“They were extremely welcoming,” said Chong in regards to the Newhouse Center and Snug Harbor staff. “There are so many thousands of millions of artists in New York City, but they were open to my idea. I love how they have this can-do attitude.”

One of Chong’s favorite memories while working with the Newhouse Center was at the opening of El Dorado last October. “Because of COVID, there were not that many people, but they really did a beautiful presentation and land acknowledgement, it almost made me cry.”

Chong’s goal with her art is to inspire an opportunity for reflection for viewers. “For me, the purpose of public art is for people that normally wouldn’t go into a gallery or museum to just encounter art in an unpredictable space,” she said.

“I was waiting for the bus after the opening of El Dorado. There were people just looking at it and experiencing it. One gentleman, I looked at him from far away from beginning to end, he was taking in the piece but also moving around, questioning. That’s so exciting to see.”

“I hope there have been many, many similar encounters like that.”

Cecile speaks about El Dorado in front of the installation at the Winter Sculpture Walk on March 6, 2021.

Chong has found motivation throughout the pandemic through a similar lens; the opportunity for reflection has also presented itself throughout the last year. “I feel motivated in that we have seen a lot of societal structures questioned, we are examining them,” she said. “That has to do with the environment, Black Lives Matter, how we treat the land and native cultures — some of these themes that have bothered us for years and now they’re in our face. Hopefully, this is a period to reflect, but also to educate ourselves to be better.”

“Art brings different perspectives, we see one thing in lots of different angles of interpretation,” said Chong. “I think we’ll be able to appreciate things more once we come out of this.”

Learn more about Cecile’s work here. El Dorado: The New Forty Niners is on view at the North Meadow of Snug Harbor, between North Gate on Richmond Terrace and Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art (Building C). Learn more about El Dorado at Snug Harbor here.