Tjap artist proudly shows me my name that he has carved in the marble, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios
It’s hard to keep track of all the details while traveling. I have lost this artist’s name, but I loved talking to him. When he learned I was an artist and wanted the tjap (pronounced chop) for my art work, he gave me details and information about the item that he doesn’t bother explaining to tourists.
Dating to the Qin dynasty (210 BCE), Chinese seal carvings were only used by the emperor. It was a symbol of power and authority and authenticity. They have been used for centuries by artists to sign their work.
There were many blanks to choose from, ranging from simple wood about 1/2 inch round, to ornate carved marble 1.5 inches square. I picked up one of the latter to examine.
Those carvings are the four dragons that represent the four elements, he told me. I perked up. I rattle off the elements. He looked surprised. You know Chinese culture, he said, pleased. Not very much, but the elements are a recurring theme in my work, especially the Prayer Flag project, which have the alchemist’s symbols silk screened at the bottom, and incorporate the element colors in the flags themselves.
Of course that tjap was the one for me!
Another customer came up as I gave him my business card bearing my Chinese name for him to inscribe on the marble. She had a couple of kids in tow. The market was crowded and space was tight. She juggled the school-aged kids, called to her husband, and insisted that the artist inscribe the tjaps with her childrens’ monograms. The artist’s smile didn’t falter, but that’s not his art. That’s what he has to do to make a living: comply with the customer’s demand. But would a non-Asian customer ask for that? The artist and I exchanged a look that communicated what all artists know: I will do this thing you ask, but it’s not my art. I will do my best work, but this request tells me my art is not understood or respected. The customer meant no disrespect; she just didn’t understand the value of the tjap and the artist’s expertise to carve it for her, and the piece of himself he was offering.
I do understand it. A little. He and I talked quite a bit while he worked. I didn’t haggle the price, but paid what he asked. He tossed in an ink well.
A tjap is not an easy thing to ink or use. It will take practice to master the traditional way of signing my work. It will be time well spent.