Justin Li

Year of Graduation: 
Justin Li and M. Sharkey discuss Li's artwork in the foyer of the Lamont Gallery.

"I consider [the collection] almost like a love letter to Exeter.”

When acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Michael Sharkey first came to Exeter in 2017, his exhibition, “Queer Kids,” had a “profound and positive impact,” recalls Lamont Gallery Director and Curator Lauren O’Neal.

Sharkey’s bold portraits of lesbian, gay, transgender and queer teens from around the world raised the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community on campus and spurred important conversations about gender, identity and sexuality.

But more than that, Sharkey’s work inspired individual students like Justin Li ’20 to take action and express their own truth through art.

Portrait of the artist

Self Portrait of Justin Li. “With my art, I love how ostentatious it is because it’s meant to draw viewers in,” Li says. “It’s almost like ‘Give me attention,’ you know, because these topics are so often under the rug, people really just shove it under because they don’t want to talk about these issues. I’m doing the opposite of that.”

Beginning in his lower year, Li began producing a series of oil paintings exploring identity, coming-of-age, and the experience of being a queer youth of color. Li wanted to share his body of work with a wider audience and approached O’Neal last summer about the possibility of an Academy exhibition. O’Neal supported his efforts and Li’s self-curated show, “Your Blood + Mine: A Meditation on Identity,” premiered in the Lamont Gallery foyer in January.

Li’s portraiture — depicting friends, family and himself — combines realism and abstraction. On canvas, Li says, he highlights the dichotomy between the masculine and feminine, and how he has struggled with it in light of his queer, Asian and male identities.

Viewers can see Li gain confidence over time as he experiments with styles, moving from straightforward representation to more expressionistic brush strokes in his recent work. “The change is pretty dramatic,” Li says.

“I consider [the collection] almost like a love letter to Exeter. … It was so personal for me to be able to see how I’ve developed and see that progression through my art.”

Sharkey returns to campus

In February, nearly three years after his first visit, Michael Sharkey returned to campus for a weeklong stint as an artist-in-residence, a program designed by O’Neal and Director of Student Activities Joanne Lembo to continue the connection, O’Neal says.

During his residency, Sharkey immersed himself in Exeter life. The artist attended a new winter-term course ENG 577: Queer Literature; offered a public lunchtime presentation; and unveiled a series of pop-up portraits of Exeter students that he captured in 2017.

Li was one of the students Sharkey photographed, so it was especially touching when the two reunited for a one-on-one, artist-to-artist “crit” outside of Lamont Gallery.

Portrait of Justin Li by Michael Sharkey.

The art “crit”

“I would not have guessed from our initial meeting that you would have gone on to be quite so demonstrative in your self-expression,” Sharkey tells Li.

“I feel like since the last time we talked, I’ve changed a lot,” Li says. “I’m a lot more comfortable here in my skin. A lot more confident.”

Over some 40 minutes, the pair bonded about the creative process and their affinity for artists like Nan Goldin, David Hockey and Alice Neel.

“I don’t make value judgments of the work,” Sharkey says. “I just talk about it in terms of art making. … I’m able to point [Li] in directions and reference artists that I think might be inspiring.”

“It was just amazing to be able to connect with someone who thought so similarly to me,” Li says. “I think the queer art world is a very specific niche and to be able to talk to someone who understood all of these concepts, who admired the same artists as I do, was really interesting.”

Commitment to the cause

Li is devoted to raising awareness for the LGBTQ+ community. At Exeter, the student council member founded a student-run clothing brand and publication called Love to All Project to celebrate and support queer youth. Last year, the Love to All Project donated $10,000 to charitable organizations, including the Trevor Project, and worked with LGBTQ+ leaders like Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David to raise LGBTQ+ visibility.

Between school, art and activism, does the senior have time to sleep?  “I get nine hours every night, actually,” Li says. “People are really surprised when they hear that. I love sleeping.”