Thursday, September 06, 2007

China: Art Behind Closed Doors

It was time. I felt it in my gut. It was time to put down my chopsticks and put a pencil in my hand…

While attending the International Symposium on the Comparative Research of Modern and Contemporary Chinese and Western Art Education, I became hungry for some creative action. For days, every conversation with my Chinese colleagues had been revolving around questions of aesthetics, issues of philosophy and modalities of learning. Before heading out to breakfast at the elegant Hotel and conference center, I stashed a handful of art materials into my backpack. The objective: To provoke my new-found Chinese colleagues into the act of making some art.

Eating is a serious business in China, as even our breakfasts consisted of a buffet fit for kings. I decided to forgo my early morning feast and play the role of independant Western-artist. Sitting down with only a steaming glass of soy-milk, I boldly removed the materials from my backpack and began to create an artwork right there at the table.

I was sitting next to the wife of our host, the Director of Shandong University. She immediately began exclaiming something excitedly while I told her through our translator that I was intending to create a gift for her.

Taking a common pencil and a soft sheet of artists printing foam, I began etching the design of a feathered crane into the surface. A small cluster of onlookers drew nearer, and I handed them samples of the foam to inspect. I told the professors that they were welcome to come to my room that evening to learn how to create a block print of their own!

This invitation was casual but markedly insistent. I knew that they would not, out of grace, decline the invitation. So the conference continued on through the day, with further discussion of artistic direction, artistic concern and artistic inquiry- all verbal of course. Finally our sumptuous evening dinner provided me with the opportunity to remind my new friends of my invitation. “We will be there at 8:30 pm“, my translator Wang Qi said.

I hurried back to my hotel room to spread out newspapers, lay out an ink tray, brayers and more printing foam. When the professors arrived, I experienced one of the most magical evenings of my teaching career.

I did a little demonstration of how to create a block print. Indeed, this is one of my favorite art projects, being a huge hit with children and adults ( and was used in the creation of the project I was involved in for the United nations Environmental Programme.)

Explaining how my attentive participants could use color, line and design to create their own artwork, I was met with a primary question: “What were the rules?” I had the delight of answering that there really weren’t any rules…just creative choices.

They were in new territory…

Quin Hua, my translator Qi and the good professor Steven Fletcher ( From Northern California) were first in line to begin the process. I taught them a little and had them go through the entire art making process themselves:

Step One: a rectangle of color is created on a piece of paper. Issues of color choice, and random or controlled imagery come into play. These colors will form a base upon which the print will be applied.

Steps two and three: An image is etched into the printing foam, and printer's ink is rolled onto the etched surface. Step four: the inked foam surface is pressed onto the colored paper surface.
The results: Joy.

The way they described the process filled my heart. They described it as …“freedom”.

A knock at the door signaled that more distinguished professors had arrived and I had Professor Quin Hua do the honors and teach them the just-learned process. I handed her the torch and just sat back with a smile on my face. Mess-making. The smell of oil pastels and printing ink was sweet to my senses.

At one moment, the scene before me made me laugh. Here were these distinguished professors from Beijing’s top Universities kneeling down beside my bed , coloring like happy children. Steven Fletcher quietly went next door to retrieve his flute, and began playing a gentle song as the impromptu workshop unfolded.

Their apprehension about “not being qualified to create art" was surprising to me. They were some of China’s most esteemed professors of art aesthetics, but did not create art themselves. My dearChinese hosts told me that they had not actually made art since they were very young.

A print of her childhood home...

We discussed how this project could be included in their curriculum, so that their students could experience these sensations of choice making, creativity and “freedom”.

The evening was enlivened further as Steven offered to give flute lessons. Professor Cheng broke into song, and danced spontaneously while Steven played. We all clapped and laughed and joined in. It was the most memorable of times.

Time for music, dancing and childhood songs... I am sure we kept many guests awake.

There is nothing as thrilling as having barriers erased between people.

Art triumphed.