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Photographed at the Art Gallery of Guelph, Justin Ming Yong is part of The Third Scenario, a show that captures ”making through hyphenated conditions.”Ted Belton/The Globe and Mail

Like many creatives passing time during pandemic lockdowns, Justin Ming Yong yearned to expand his artistic repertoire beyond the landscape and commercial photography he was known for. “I was looking for something new,” Yong says, noting that there was a liberating lack of pressure in such exploration at the time.

His mother had found such an outlet in quilting throughout her life and while Yong says he didn’t initially have the same appreciation for it, he began to read more about the practice and soon became smitten. “I found a book, a retrospective of American quilting, and after seeing the many different styles of quilts, something clicked for me,” he says.

Since then, Yong’s cloth “canvases” have come to incorporate myriad influences including the vibrant angularity of the oeuvre of the Gee’s Bend quilters, an early 20th-century group of Black women from Alabama, and modernist art movement icons such as Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko and Joan Mitchell. There’s a similar feeling of freneticism in Yong’s quilts, which are fashioned from materials including deadstock denim and scraps from old store window displays.

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Yong’s quilts reference modernist art as well as the Gee’s Bend quilters, a group of Black artists from Alabama. Photographed at the Art Gallery of Guelph.Ted Belton/The Globe and Mail

“Once you compile a certain amount of fabric, it’s sort of like piecing together a puzzle, as opposed to painting, where you’re mixing colours – and the possibilities are endless,” he says. Within these material confines, Yong finds a sense of liberation to tell personal stories. One piece, a bright red abstract lobster shape on a white background, represents the multiplicitous nature of his ancestry. “My father’s family is from mainland China, and my mother’s family is from Newfoundland,” he says about its inspiration. In an Instagram post about the piece, Yong noted: “One side of my family enjoys [lobster] with black bean sauce on special occasions. The other side eats it freshly caught that day with butter for a few months of the year. Either way, this one is a delicacy for me.”

Yong’s exploration of identity made him a perfect candidate for inclusion in the exhibition, The Third Scenario, on until Dec. 17 at the Art Gallery of Guelph in Ontario. Curated by 2023 Middlebrook Prize winner Holly Chang, it “examines the act of art making through hyphenated conditions – states and environments in flux that challenge the idea of art and identity as fixed entities”, according to an introductory text about the show.

“I remember coming across [Justin’s] work on Instagram and I related to his process because I learned how to quilt around the same time,” Chang says. “I was really moved by the simplicity but also the level of detail in his work. I felt that his quilts had strong ties to history but with a distinctive and renewed perspective.”

Yong’s knack for needlework aligns with a growing interest in quilting on fashion’s runways – brands from indie darling Bode to the established French house, Chanel, offer takes quilt-like pieces this season – as well as an art-world push to break down dated boundaries in the distinction between visual art and craft. Yong doesn’t see them as separate entities at all. “When I started quilting, I saw it as an art form,” he says.

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