Kevin Kao: “This should probably be turned into a brown bag”

By Gabrielle Madewell, Contributing Writer

Kevin Kao, assistant professor of art, is a very personable and energetic person, who really helps bring Benson Wood to life.  “Hi,” he says, leaning into the recorder. “I’m Kevin Kao. I like long walks on the beach, fried chicken, and the Target clearance section… but only on Wednesdays.”


Senior art major Darla Allen described Kao as “a good teacher. He’s tough; he doesn’t bullshit.” Allen continued: “I’ve stared at some of my work and thought of everything that Kevin could possibly say about it, to make sure I was prepared.”

Kao responded to this by applauding and saying, “Oh, I feel so good. You can’t see this, but I pat myself on the back.”

As an instructor, Kao says he enjoys having students create projects that have something to do with the way they grew up or that involve something they hold important. “I think if we can understand ourselves better through the process of making, it can help other people understand our own ideals.”

Kao was born and raised in Orange County, California. His parents were first generation Taiwanese immigrants.  His father, Wen, immigrated to the states from Brazil when he was 16 and met Kao’s mother, Ruby, while traveling back home. Kao’s mother agreed to marry his father after their third date and immigrated to the states to be with him.  They ended up in California, raising Kao and his younger sister, Elaine.

Growing up, Kao recalls living a split life, both private and public. In his private life, he recalls generally adopting the traditional life of his parents. “Private was very Chinese, very much the immigrant experience in general and public was just like everyone else’s; you wore Vans and Converse,” Kao remembers, “but then you would come home to this private life and there would just be these things that were different, like celebrating Chinese New Year or having your bathroom be tile, floor to ceiling.”

“Being a person of color, you’re always really conscious of the other,” Kao said. This means that he is even more aware of his position of power as an instructor. “All at the same time, I have to represent this institution but also represent where I come from.”

Kao said that his upbringing has played a role in influencing his artistic approach. He is interested in this idea of identity as multifaceted as well as being an individual part of a group or collection. These themes are highlighted in some of his recent work. While one object has to hold similar characteristics to the group and be cohesive, it also has to be its own individualized entity. One particular ceramic sculpture of Kao’s that represents this idea of duality and unity features two connected mirroring heads looking in opposite directions.


Kao’s piece “Hubris (Duality),” created with ceramic and glaze features two mirroring heads, one with long hair, one with short.

Although art is an every day part of Kao’s life now, he said had very different plans for himself entering his undergraduate years. Kao attended the University of California San Diego where he earned his Bachelor’s of Science in biology – ecology, animal behavior, evolution in 2008. For a brief period of time after graduating, Kao worked in lab testing.

“It didn’t work out, let’s put it that way,” Kao says. It didn’t feel like it was building towards anything and for a brief amount of time, it was just a way to make an income.

Even before graduating from undergrad, Kao said that he knew he was going to make the shift. After taking the introductory theory class, Art 101, he decided that he was going to go back to school to pursue art. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do, I didn’t know what I was gonna make, but I enjoyed the process of critique and art theory.”

Looking back at his first critique, Kao says “We spent, I don’t know, like 3 hours, talking about a paperclip that was bent in the shape of a heart.” Kao enjoyed the conversation surrounding his first critique because it felt like an intersection of a variety of themes, genres, and fields.

“It was not until much later that I realized the importance of craft and execution and technique, which is what I think normally what people gravitate to.”

It wasn’t until 2015 that Kao received his M.F.A. in ceramics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “You might be wondering what I did to financially support myself through that 6 year break of time. Odd jobs! Let me tell you, odd jobs.”

After graduating from undergrad, he worked as a studio assistant, at a gallery, and in retail positions, but he said his favorite job was working as an art handler. “On any day, you could be cutting boxes, or building a container for a painting, or driving 8 hours to deliver a piece of work, or one day you could find yourself in a celebrity’s home, moving their work to a different location,” Kao said.

Kao feels very fortunate to have received a job teaching since the academic field is so competitive. “I’m a big believer that if you put your talents out there, people will recognize that,” he says. Through teaching, Kao has learned a lot from his students who continue to show him new ways to think creatively daily. Through teaching, he’s learned to be far less judgmental and more critical.

To Kao, it’s exciting to see how students decide to approach a project and create something. Reflecting on students work, whether it’s a new way of drawing a line, or constructing a shadow, Kao has often thought: “This is ingenious, and that’s not something I’ve ever considered or seen before and those small innovations are really exciting to see.”


3 thoughts on “Kevin Kao: “This should probably be turned into a brown bag”

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  1. Gabrielle, thank you for writing this wonderful piece about Kevin Kao, our talented art professor. It’s fun to learn about the life experiences that make him who he is. Thanks for sharing this article with the McKendree community.

  2. This is such a great article-it’s so nice to see one of our wonderful faculty featured!

  3. What a fascinating profile of our talented and generous art professor, Kevin Kao. Thank you, Gabrielle! (As a follow-up, Professor Kao will be presenting at the Brown Bag series on November 28 / noon / PAC 222. Come check it out!) 😉

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