Today is Christina Marie Fong’s forty-eighth birthday, which for her means two things: Hawaiian punch and Hawaiian pizza. “I’m going to become one big Hawaiian papaya,” she says, pounding the table and grinning a mischievous grin. The archipelago’s legendary status as a playground for the rich and beautiful fits well with Christina’s persona: bold, colorful, warm, and with a touch of glamor.
Before the papaya transformation takes place, Christina works on a birthday piece at her table in the light-filled Creativity Explored 2 studio in Potrero Hill, San Francisco. It depicts what she calls a “tigercatdog,” a fearsome creature with enormous white teeth, spiral blue eyes, and jagged black and gold fur, drawn in mixed media on red paper. The piece is typical of the body of work she has developed in her 13 years as an artist.
“Her style was pretty apparent early on,” says Francis Kohler, who works as combination studio manager, service coordinator, and art instructor at CE2. “She had a way of making these anthropomorphized animals. They’ve been refined the past couple of years; they have become more detailed and nuanced.”
Christina has worked as an artist at CE2 since 2010, and she has made meaningful connections there. All morning, people visit her at her table to wish her happy birthday and give her congratulatory hugs. Against a backdrop of the studio-made art that covers the walls—onion domed churches, striped cats, dragons in an epic battle—her family celebration has already begun.
Christina works most often with permanent markers and paint markers, creating simple line drawings enriched with intricate patterns on paper or wood. Francis theorizes that the markers provide a degree of control that Christina, who has a developmental disability, finds helpful. But, he notes, “she’s open to different things—sculpture, paints, collage.”
Besides her unique brand of fantasy creatures, Christina’s work often involves celebrities and tabloid staples portrayed in lurid colors, frequently in advanced states of undress and overlaid with loops and curlicues of metallic paint marker. One past series featured collages of diamonds and other gems cut out from fashion magazines and named for Madonna, Beyoncé, and Mariah Carey. Another, which showcased Christina’s attention to detail, involved meticulous paper reproductions of haute couture handbags.
That interest in celebrity is “certainly an extension of who she is,” Francis says. He describes Christina as “diva-like and flamboyant but not condescending,” noting that “she doesn’t put people down.” Her big personality, warmth, and humor show in her work, which is at once an affectionate tribute, a sly commentary, and a way to insert herself into the world of celebrity.
That easy affection for her subjects comes through clearly in her descriptions of her art. She calls one drawing, which depicts the unlikely trio of Aaliyah, Chuck Berry, and Barry White together in swirls of gold and silver, “Welcome to the Family Club” and introduces another piece, featuring a mostly-nude Eminem and Rihanna, by saying, “Here comes my family!”
Christina’s unique perspective on fame is part of what makes her work feel so immediate. She sees celebrities as individual, and human, with “their own stories, different pasts, and different songs.” She often talks to her drawings, calling Eminem a “damn dirty dog” or urging playfully, “Put some clothes on, Rihanna!” She follows celebrity media religiously, citing ET, Insider, and People as perennial favorites. When she heard about Whitney Houston’s death, she says, she couldn’t sleep for two weeks.
The passion Christina brings to her work has not gone unnoticed. Her art started to receive attention soon after she arrived at CE2. A few years ago, California College of the Arts instructor Glen Helfand invited her to participate in Fabricators, a collaborative course and art project that involved his students working with Creativity Explored artists on new facets of the artists’ work. Christina’s team created a magazine for their portion of the project, incorporating original photography and some of her previous work. They “used her attraction to that whole world of being ‘fabulous’ and made her a part of it,” Francis says.
The work she and the CCA students produced for Fabricators landed her in San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery in 2012. The next year, she was included in a group show of outsider artist work at Oakland International Airport. And most recently she was featured in exhibitions including Bay Area Now 7 at the prominent Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and West Coasts at Museum of the Creation Franc in Begles, France, in 2014. Christina says she loves the idea of people in France enjoying her work. In a way, if her art is traveling it feels as though she is traveling, too.
At the mere mention of the word “fabulous,” Christina’s face lights up. She loves “pictures, poses, beautiful clothes, the material. A cascade of clothes!” she says, doing a little vogue in her chair as she adds gold detail to the tigercatdog’s tail. In keeping with her attraction to glamor, she loves to shop, preferring to find her outfits at Goodwill and thrift stores and customize them with her personal brand of attitude and charm. Her birthday outfit includes a nylon windbreaker with matching red backpack and jean capris; her curly silver-black pony-tail is tucked under a khaki baseball cap whose brim is flipped up or down depending on her mood. Today that mood is upbeat, as she anticipates pizza, her birthday party, and another good year.
“In the social settings where she grew up, she had to be tough physically and mentally and emotionally,” Francis says of Christina’s childhood. That childhood included a move from Hawaii to San Francisco at age 13 and stints in various group homes. These days, Christina’s life includes a more permanent living situation that she shares with a beloved Chihuahua named Pretty Ricky and a cat named Pepé Le Pew; lazy Monday mornings sleeping late; solo trips on the bus; and a boyfriend, EJ, who has been her stalwart companion for 21 years. “We’ll get married in another five,” she says. “We’re taking it slow.”
By simplifying well-known figures into lines of ink and paint, Christina reduces the distance between celebrity and ordinary people and builds intimacy in its place. Her talent at bridging that distance extends to everyday life. She exudes warmth and energy (which she attributes in part to her high caffeine intake), gives out hugs generously, and thrives in a strong social network at Creativity Explored.
Francis is careful to note that the program is neither art therapy nor a behavioral modification program. Its closest analog, he says, is art school—an opportunity for people with creative spark who might not otherwise have the chance to focus so intensely on developing their artistic vision. For Christina and others like her, however, there is an extra positive feature to the experience. “The social aspects, too, are really important,” he says. “They really get to interact with the public in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do under other circumstances. If they’re in a group home or a family home, you know, they’re not necessarily going to have that option.” That means that even on days when it’s not Christina’s birthday, she is still surrounded by familiar faces, people she sees every day, week after week, year after year—people who have watched her grow as an artist, witnessed her victories and struggles, shared stories and jokes, admired her work, and showed her theirs.
Just before she leaves for the day, Christina gives out a last round of hugs and surveys her most recent pieces spread out on a table. They feature, among other subjects, Johnny Depp with shiny corkscrew hair and a turquoise motorcycle jacket as well as Eminem in a kind of gold chest plate.
“I treat these people like family,” she says. It’s not clear whether she’s referring to the celebrities in her work or the other artists at Creativity Explored. It doesn’t really matter.