By Shalon Butt
Picasso has said that we take inspiration for art “from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” And from our culture? In light of the coming Chinese New Year, I spoke with three prominent Chinese Newfoundland artists to discuss their own cultural experiences and sources of inspiration.
Photographer and print-maker
Ya-Ling Huang, born in Taipei, Taiwan, 1976, is a visual artist living in St. John’s. She has lived in Canada since 1995, attending high school in Toronto, then completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. She moved here to practise her craft about three years ago. She was the 2005-2006 recipient of the Don Wright scholarship through St. Michael’s Printshop, and currently serves on the Printshop’s board of directors.
Ya-Ling studied no art in Taiwan. It was not until her computer teacher in Toronto, noticing the creative presentation of her assignments, encouraged her to pursue visual art that the possibility of a career in art occurred to her. Ya-Ling sees her teacher as a cautionary example. He told her how he loved music when he was younger, but was pushed by his parents to pursue something more practical, like math and science. He later recognised his mistake, but always regretted allowing himself to be discouraged. Ya-Ling says she learned from this mistake.
In Ya-Ling’s experience, art is undervalued in Taiwan. She cites a general Chinese push to succeed in “practical” endeavours: “We are more practical, kind of. We just think more practical[ly].” Apart from her mother’s photography, the only artwork she remembers seeing in Taiwan was commercial. With her teacher’s example, she was able to resist a similar push from her own parents. “They still think I’m crazy,” she says.
But does her Taiwanese heritage influence her art? “It has to,” she says. She describes her art as consciously comparing the two cultures. “I compare what I see here with what I grew up with, the values that I learned when I was growing up.” She is particularly interested in the merging of the two, a progression she’s witnessed in herself over the years: “For the first few years here, home was Taiwan; but home for me now is both Canada and Taiwan.” She expresses this new identity in her newest project, “Keys.” “[It’s] my own interpretation of being here–I don’t feel the colour of my skin.”
Everyone carries a different set of individual keys, the work implies, but the keys don’t indicate race. They symbolize difference and equality.
Ya-Ling’s Newfoundland experience has inspired her perception of artistic life. The arts community is small, but supportive. Unlike her Mount Allison classmates who were pressured to find non-artistic jobs, here Ya-Ling met artists doing what they love; they may not be rich, she says, but “They’re happy. It’s like life is hard here anyway, so you might as well do what you want.”
This small but devout artistic community has inspired her to take her art seriously.
This New Year, she’ll be on a plane, heading home to visit family in Taiwan.
Textiles artist and painter
Ying Tian, a more recent arrival to Canada, was born in 1978 in Beijing. She studied visual arts extensively in China before coming to Newfoundland in 2000, where she studied textiles at CONA. Her works have been purchased internationally. Employing oil on linen, they possess a truly remarkable delicacy and detail. During my conversation with Ying, I asked how her particular method had evolved.
How do these two cultural experiences affect her art? It’s difficult to express in words, she says. She doesn’t connect herself particularly to any one culture, but perceives herself more as an international artist. Her experiences are not necessarily detailed in the images themselves, but they have affected her as an individual, and also in turn her craft.
Ying’s interest is mostly in still life, though she has also done landscape sketches in pencil. Many of her still life paintings have local origins, while “the skill is more like the Chinese.” This side of her method is difficult for Ying to explain, but it becomes clear in her work to anyone familiar with the traditions of Chinese painting.
Finally, Ying offers a percentage to explain her personal composition. For China and Newfoundland, she’s about “80% and 20%.” There is a certain logic to this, as 20% happens to be roughly the amount of her life she has spent in Newfoundland.
This New Year is particularly special for Ying – she’s due to have a baby any time this week.
“I listen to everything,” says Heather Kao. “Absolutely everything.”
Heather Kao was born and raised here in St. John’s to a Taiwanese father and a Newfoundlander mother. She has a performance degree from MUN’s School of Music and plays and teaches both violin and piano. Now she mostly does freelance work, playing wherever she can. Her performances include stints with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, and now with the group Hey Rosetta!
Her musical interests and experience are cleary diverse, but are nevertheless mostly rooted within the Western tradition. She says that her father exposed her to classical music, and she plays both classical and Newfoundland fiddle. So, does she think her Taiwanese heritage affects her art? Where does it fit in?
“I think it’s slightly affected my view.” Like Ya-Ling, Heather refers to “the push,” though not towards any expectations imposed on her by others, but a push to succeed in whatever goal she sets for herself, to strive to be her best. Now 26, she recalls cultural differences growing up between herself, “practicing for hours and hours a day,” and her friends who played violin “for fun.” However, she says her father’s push helped her with her drive.
“It helped me become the player that I am,” she says.