By: Ina Joseph
Given the political, economic, and public health chaos that has resulted from this pandemic, it’s easy to forget what life was like before COVID-19, or the ways in which life persists during COVID-19. People have endured tragedy unrelated to the virus, and entrepreneurs have embarked on business endeavors in spite of it. Artist, writer, and freelance graphic designer Hoa Le did both.
If anything, the pandemic has been a breeze, according to the PEN-HAUS club founder, who endured unimaginable heartbreak in 2019. “After last year, this year has been cake”.
They say that tragedy begets tragedy. But for Hoa Le, tragedy begot artistry, healing, self-expression, and a promising new passion.
How It All Started
Hoa Le grew up with the “passion for fashion”, using clothing as her first form of artistic expression. By the tender age of sixteen she had thoroughly launched herself into the fashion world with various industry programs and internships that allowed her to build her artistry outside of the “Best Dressed” superlative. A few years later, Hoa was off to the Fashion Institute of Technology, preparing for future careers at Alexander Wang, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and Victoria’s Secret. The thought of Hoa quickly became synonymous with the thought of the fashion industry, with all its energy and boldness.
However, after 13 years of living in the cut throat environment of New York City, Hoa was ready for change. "After working the industry in New York, it’s hard to leave and get that same satisfaction elsewhere,” Hoa said. “I wanted to flex my creativity beyond that industry.”
She packed her bags to return home to Seattle to be with her family. Now 35 years old, Hoa was back at home, in a city she hadn’t inhabited since adolescence. Six weeks into her readjustment, Hoa found out her brother’s life had been taken. While over one hundred relatives travelled to Seattle from all over the country to support Hoa and her family as they grieved—a process especially difficult for an Asian family whose cultural norm was to mask all emotion—her home still felt like a negative space that needed escaping from.
"A part of me wanted to run away a little bit from the house and kind of drown. I don’t think I was ready to deal with the reality of the situation,” Hoa said. And so, two weeks after her brother’s death she started a new position at Recreational Equipment Inc. as Material Designer.
As time went on, throwing herself into her work and putting on a brave face no longer sufficed. Hoa began expressing herself the only way she really knew how: her art.
Back At It - a piece from Hoa's debut zine, The Titty Issue.
Bigger Than Fashion
Hoa’s identity had been associated with the fashion industry since she was a teenager, so exploring a side of art that wasn’t commercially inclined created quite the identity crisis. She began creating illustrations that forced her to look deeper within.
“I always drew without thought; I always just drew what came to mind... One of the things I discovered about myself as an artist was, one, being Asian and [learning to be] comfortable with my body was a huge thing; growing up I used clothes to mask all my insecurities,” Hoa said. “Leaving the [fashion] industry and leaving my identity behind, I realized I was drawing these nude figures to kind of be honest with myself about who I was – accept myself, my body image, my sexuality, just myself as pure and raw.”
Spurring from an amalgam of Hoa’s fascination with the female form and her own bodily self-acceptance, something of a book came together from Hoa's drawings. In realizing the resonance of the aesthetic theme she had built, Hoa knew these illustrations could become something bigger. And thus, The Titty Issue, PEN-HAUS club’s first zine, was born.
“The Titty Issue actually came purely by accident,” Hoa admitted. “I was getting a lot of really great feedback on my Instagram and people were really relating. So, I thought, ‘Ok, how can I make this a thing? Something real and more tangible?’”
What started as a “little brand book” for buyers and boutiques became a 48-page illustrative body of nude line drawings and poetry. By the time Hoa began building the messaging and strategy behind the newly completed Titty Issue, October was around the corner. Unbeknownst to Hoa, the resurgence of breast cancer awareness and discourse would reveal an aspect of her own traumas.
“Talking about breast cancer felt relative to [my experience]. What I kept saying was that I was fighting mental ‘cancer’ all year,” Hoa explained. “I was fighting this darkness all year. And I kept saying it felt cancerous; like if I didn’t stop it, it would spread. I was so afraid of it...consuming me.”
The Titty Issue could resonate with breast cancer survivors as their self-perception maneuvered struggles with what was inside their breast – their cancer, while it resonated with Hoa as she struggled with the emotional turmoil brewing in what was underneath her breast – her heart.
Radiation (from The Titty Issue) drawn from colors in breast cancer CT scans. "You know when you get that first diagnosis... that's the moment it becomes real. It's when something emotional becomes physical and tangible" - a mirror of how insidious depression can feel.
October 10th, 2019, The Titty Issue launch was a great success. The zine sold out in a matter of two months – over 150 copies making their way across the country. In celebrating her first release, her art, and her creative ties to breast cancer, Hoa finally broadcasted her voice as an artist. But she was also broadcasting something else – a fire inside.
A Little Bit of Everything
This flood of artistry came to Hoa “without even trying”, largely because of the natural space art took in her life as the sole outlet for emotional expression. Her viscerally poignant and refreshingly raw illustrations of the female form came with a vehement heat she hoped others would be able to detect.
“To me [The Titty Issue] was kind of a red flag where I was like, ‘Guys, I’m in trouble here! There’s a fire in me, I’m struggling.’ But not a lot of people got that.”
Even Hoa’s family, with whom she shared intimate pieces of poetry after her brother’s passing to help cope with the tremendous loss, didn’t fully “get it” right away. She attributed this to the art’s “masking” of her true feelings underneath a variety of overlapping themes and concepts.
“The message is very buried. You have to really peel the layers off to understand it,” How explained. “I can understand why there may be a disconnect, but I think it shows culturally how I’m used to masking feelings. I don’t know if I would’ve been comfortable to come out with a book that was very... obvious.”
While emotions like heartbreak and grief may not have been “obvious” in her work, plenty of other themes were. The variety and, to some, profanity of Hoa’s drawings do not leave anything about the female form to the imagination. It was important to her that she depicted versions of nakedness that shunned any sort of idealistic perfection while still embracing its raunchiness and provocation.
“I want to encourage women to embrace the beauty of their own bodies, not the ‘perfect’ body. To just embrace and be honest with who you are. It can easily become a sexual thing, but I think when women own it, they have control of that,” Hoa explained.
She went on to describe how her nudity helps embrace not just the physical form, but the sexuality that comes along with it: “There is definitely a sensual vibe to [my nude drawings], but to me, sex and the soul are connected.... [Nudity] is a level of your soul; when you’re naked with someone, that’s you connecting [with them]. That’s the most vulnerable part of you.”
Twisted from The Titty Issue.
While some may think the use of all these themes – sexuality, the female anatomy, breast cancer, and mental health– may be burdensome, it allows for a broad range of people to identify with Hoa’s work. The Titty Issue provides a little bit of everything - catering to a variety of experiences and struggles so that no matter who you are, there’s something that can resonate. Such is the beauty of the PEN-HAUS club.
Mind, Body, Soul, and PEN-HAUS
Since the whirlwind launch of The Titty Issue in 2019, Hoa’s expanded the PEN-HAUS club’s repertoire with the release of The Booty Issue and The Naked Issue; creating a perfectly smutty trilogy. The Booty Issue, released in December of 2019, approached Hoa’s first Christmas without her brother. Knowing that Christmas was going to be, well, “booty”, she wanted to create something that was still lighthearted and allowed people to embrace their struggles together. And so, consisting of illustrations in perforated post-card form, The Booty Issue was an ode to the “assholes that may have f*cked you” this year; encouraging you to let them go and maybe even send them a booty post card!
Amour Caché's Dani Balconette Bra pictured with PEN-HAUS print Back At It.
PEN-HAUS club’s latest release this past summer, The Naked Issue, took a unique approach to encompass our needs in the middle of quarantine by taking the form of a coloring book. “I wanted to encourage people to bring more art into their lives,” Hoa said. “It was during the time where everyone was picking up a new hobby – cooking, coloring, doing are – so [I wanted to] come up with something that would give people something to do. And art, to me, is also a solution for mental health.”
Keeping up with the precedent set by her first release, every body of Hoa’s work has maintained a versatility that makes each issue wide-reaching, timeless, and beautifully complex. But the PEN-HAUS club’s work doesn’t stop with publications. Hoa’s gone on to client work, tapping into her graphic design skills to amplify small businesses’ logos and branding. Most recently, she’s found a passion for Pilates both in her personal workout regimen, and in her clientele. Taking her designs to the wellness industry has amplified yet another layer of Hoa’s artistry and life experience – the importance of the mind-body-soul connection.
“I’ve found so much support in the Pilates community - this community that really embraces body health, body art, and body awareness and consciousness," Hoa said. “[My work] is basically evolving into a sector of body, mind, and soul health. Doing all the artwork for the Pilates community really reinforces that.”
And this evolution fittingly reinforces the Hoa’s own experiences which inspired her art in the first place. When she neglected her mental health after the death of her brother, her physical health suffered. This was her first experience recognizing the importance of mind, body, and soul. Now, a year later in the midst of a global pandemic, Hoa uses Pilates to maintain her physical health because without it, her mental and spiritual health suffer. It’s a connection that she hopes to continue relaying in her art personal art and in her professional partnerships. Despite this current passion for the wellness space, Hoa knows the bounds of PEN-HAUS club are limitless.
“I think it’s constantly evolving – my purpose and my mission for PEN-HAUS — because starting it, I just did it to do it...this was just something great I created and [I wanted to] share it with the world. Here we are, one year and three books later, and it’s definitely opened me up to different opportunities,” Hoa said. While her mission and vision may continue to evolve, one element in PEN-HAUS club will likely stay constant:
“If you keep putting your heart and soul into something, people will feel it.”