Jess X. Snow
Growing up, Jess X. Snow and their mother frequently moved. “We followed wherever the Chinese diaspora [of my mother’s family] planted roots,” they say, which brought the two everywhere from Alberta, Canada, where Snow was born, to Seattle, Washington, where they immigrated.
“None of these places affected my art practice more than the feeling and uncertainty of movement did,” says Snow, now a filmmaker and cinematographer with a prolific background as a muralist, children’s book illustrator and poet. When Kai, the protagonist of their recently finished short film, Roots That Reach Toward the Sky, experiences a panic attack after her family’s traditional Chinese medicine shop is vandalized, DP Sheldon Chau’s camera becomes more unstable, time slows and certain sounds are heightened; the change in movement is disorienting. But the film is perhaps more concerned with Kai’s personal healing in relation to the broader healing of the community, which is in part visualized through a mural made by the neighborhood in which the words “In the Future Our Asian Community is Safe” are painted over images of two generations of Asian women surrounded by flourishing flora and flocks of birds.
The mural was actually created by Snow in collaboration with intergenerational community at the W.O.W. Project, an arts and activism initiative based in Wing on Wo & Co., the oldest still-operating store in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Making art for social movements and protest with the Justseeds artist co-operative since they were 22, Snow and their various practices continue to grow through organizing and social justice. They were recently commissioned to create the first mural honoring the legacy of abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore on the walls of Possible Futures, a bookstore in New Haven, Conn. “As someone with a stutter who struggled a lot with speaking,” they said, “I was drawn to murals because of the possibilities of giving the most marginalized in society the permission to become three stories tall. What would we say with that exposure and power, and what kinds of worlds would we envision?”
Snow’s work across mediums is connected by this desire to imagine better futures. It often manifests fantastically, as in another short film of theirs, I Wanna Become the Sky, which will premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. In the film, Snow plays an artist who discovers how to unleash their inner dragon, depicted in VFX animated by Jeremy Leung as a string of yellow and orange lights emitting from their chest into the purple sky. Snow almost always incorporates gradations of these twilight colors into their children’s books, murals and films.
Snow’s works are porous, often referencing each other or becoming part of one another’s story, as with the mural in Roots That Reach Toward the Sky. So seamlessly threaded together, they bring ease to the uncertainty of movement Snow described, as well as a yearning for connection. This remains true in the script of Snow’s debut feature film, When the River Splits Open, co-written with Yumeng Han, which they workshopped at this year’s Cine Qua Non Script Revision lab and received a development grant for from Canada Council for the Arts. “The story started,” they said, “with a deep longing to connect to the lands that made me while China’s borders were closed during COVID, and also to come to terms with my father’s absence in my life.” It is a romantic homecoming road movie set in Jiangxi, China, their parents’ homeland. Snow also describes the story as a “love letter” to “their younger queer selves” and their parents’ younger selves, as well as the people they might have been if they stayed. Full of unbridled emotion, all of Snow’s art can feel like love letters—sent in hopes of bringing all of our better times, places and possibilities into one magical patchwork.—A.E. Hunt/Image: Andrew Migliori