Sexual slavery and forced labor are not crimes that happen only in third-world countries. Just look into the shadows of your own city, or in the back room of a local business and it is possible to find prostitution, child labor and other crimes.
Much of society might prefer to turn a blind eye to human trafficking in the United States, but San Rafael artist Cynthia Tom is using her work to force people to accept that the sale of human beings happens every day around the world.
“When I grew up, no one was talking about human trafficking,” said Tom, who was raised in San Francisco. “My dad was purchased as a baby in China after his family disowned him. He ran away because his family was so abusive toward him, but he never wanted to talk about it. … My mother’s dad traded her for opium a lot to men who used her sexually.”
When Tom started looking for the reason she herself developed a pattern of dating abusive men, she looked at her family history through the national archives. She found her mother’s interrogation papers from the immigration station at Angel Island.
Tom’s exhibit “Stories to tell, discards and variances” that appeared in October 2016 at Gallery Route One used historic images to really tales of human trafficking from a Chinese-American family’s perspective.
“I took my mother with me on my work,” Tom said. “It’s through the art itself and showing the art about my family and the art about women’s issues that we’ve gotten closer. She’s happy because she has a platform to be verbal — or because she doesn’t like to talk about it a lot — to be nonverbal because it is in the artwork.”
While some of her recent work shines a spotlight on human trafficking, she also tries to represent the strength of women and the importance of the fight for gender equality.
“Most of my work is more spiritual,” Tom said. “It’s about women rising and women taking care of themselves.
“I curate shows where I ask people to tell their stories about their experience with trauma or their cultural histories.”
Tom has tried to create a healing environment in which women can find strength through community and art. Asking the question, “If you had a place of your own, what would it be?” she created a series of arts-based healing and transformation workshops for women called “A Place of Her Own.”
Tom has been busy with a showing of her work in San Francisco at the stARTup Art Fair at the Hotel Del Sol last weekend.
Now, Tom is making her first appearance with Marin Open Studios. Her work appears at the Founders Gallery in San Rafael’s Art Works Downtown at 1337 Fourth Street. Marin Open Studios is May 6, 7, 13 and 14 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Information about Open Studios is available online at
Tom’s cultural surrealism is informed by her familial and feminine life experiences. She weaves together themes of social justice, feminism and eye-catching haute couture clothing. Seen through the lens of her spirituality and whimsy she helps viewers to play with our concepts of reality. Her art is her source of empowerment and a way to encourage
dialogue within individuals and community.
For Open Studios, Tom will feature an exhibit of new paintings and installation called ‘Awakening the Feminine’. Tom says that this series “is intuitively inspired by community, the gathering women’s movement, our collective female ancestors and women rising. This series began in earnest during the inception of the Women’s March 2017 and I now find myself driven by the consciousness that has bubbled up and exploded worldwide.”
Tom’s work empowers and celebrates the feminine helping to inform the cultural shift to equality and acceptance.
Tom’s showing of “Awakening the Feminine” continues through June 2. It will be part of the Second Friday Night Art Walk on May 12, when Tom will host a reception from 5-8 p.m.
She invites everyone to come and share their own tales as they indulge in the stories seen in the soulful eyes of the women looking out from Tom’s canvasses.
Tom discovers the elements for her work in magazines, ripped or worn fabric, or items others might overlook or even toss in the trash.
“Ever since I was a little kid we were always making things with found objects,” Tom said with a hint of nostalgia in her voice. “My parents were poor, but we learned to be creative. Mom taught us to make art with things people threw away.
“I’ll collect stuff people might throw in the garbage or step on. I find them and keep them filed away in my brain. At some point I might have an idea for an image. It used to be that I predrew what I was going to paint and I did that but I hated it. Now I just start putting color that I like on canvas, wood, or fabric. Sometimes my paintings tell me what to do rather quickly. Sometimes it takes five years before I figure it out.”
From within these collections of richly colored paintings and mixed media art works, comes a message influenced by Tom’s observations of people and life around her.
“The main thing for me is watching women — and even these fabulous women — destroy themselves for various reasons, whether it’s a lack of confidence or from what their parents taught them,” Tom said. “I just go with what I’m feeling. The messages come out of the pieces.
“It’s been really inspiring to me lately to see how women take ownership of themselves. I think women can be powerful. I think women need to realize that they can be powerful.
“I feel like my art is saying that without trying. I’ve never felt that quite on this level before. ... I want to invite people to come and have this dialogue about how we can all contribute to our community. My art says ‘how about if we turn life sideways and see what’s over there?’”