An Artist’s Journey: China, 7 July 2014

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Bamboo rafting on the Li River, north of Guilin, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Digital Infrared
I’m watching the karst mountain peaks recede as the China South 737 lifts us away from what must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet… and one of the most familiar to any student of Chinese art.

It’s also a place of stark contradiction, like everywhere you step in China.

The unusual peaks have an extraordinary beauty in their structure. Like the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the peaks are layered, one behind the other as they fade into the horizon. Look carefully, and you’ll see a ruined former temple or pagoda perched impossibly on a narrow crag, still proclaiming its purpose. Mist hangs between them.

Unlike other peaks, these formations sit amid large expansions of flat, arable land. Through them flows the Li River and her many tributaries. This is the fisherman’s home, and many still catch and cook right on a bamboo raft on the water’s edge.

If you have seen a Chinese brush paintings of the mountains, you have seen karst of Guilin.

Contrast this beauty with power lines crossing the rivers and hills, cell towers perched atop them… the magic is gone. There is construction everywhere to accommodate the people relocating here to work in the area’s main industry, tourism. The construction replaces the crumbling buildings, hastily built just a generation ago.

Guilin is certainly a tourist destination. Get out of the van and four women try to sell us trinkets. We’re taking a river trip on a bamboo raft.

This is a watercraft like no other. Think Hunk Finn the on the Mississippi. Eight bamboo poles, each about six inches in diameter and maybe 12 feet long. There is enough room for two secured chairs, an umbrella, and a riverman who guides the raft by pushing the river bottom with a 15-foot pole. It often disappears below the surface of the water.

There are hundreds of tourists on these bamboo rafts, and yes, you can get wet.

Touristy? Yes. Stunning in beauty and a glimpse into the rural Chinese world? Without question.

This is the land of Chinese brush painting. Not even the cell towers can mar it for long.

20140707-180111.jpgBamboo rafts fill the river with tourists, but nothing can spoil the natural splendor. ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Digital Infrared

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 6 July 2014

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Two years ago, my friend Renata was teaching at the University of Zhongshan in southeastern China.

“Come to China,” she said. “They will want to know your art.”

Last December, the Regional Arts Commission offered me the chance. They awarded me an artist support grant to travel to China, talk to artists, teach, learn, and expand my social practice project, Dare to Touch the Face of God.

Not many people know the term “social practice.” It’s the idea that art is more than beautiful — it’s important. And the sheer practice of creating and viewing purposeful art can spark an action or open a heart.

As I described it last night to about 35 Chinese artists and creative professionals and students: social practice art is where our ideals meet action. Stop talking and DO.

Dare to Touch the Face of God is an artist’s response to violence and intolerance in our world. We often feel helpless in the wake of horribleness. Social practice art offers action.

Last night, 15 people who never thought they could have an impact on the world inscribed prayer flags. China understands Prayer Flags. China understands the consequences — and power — of action. Had I brought 40 flags, I’m sure all would be inscribed.

The prayer flags are inspired by the tradition of Buddhist prayer flags. Many Chinese are Buddhist and it’s a familiar symbol. According to tradition, the inscribed prayers are lifted by the wind, carried around the world, and touch every being who feels the breeze. The idea that a normal person could add their messages of harmony was novel and exciting. That it was art? Remarkable.

No one asked questions — maybe it’s a stupid question, maybe someone is listening to the question — but every single person wanted to speak to me after the talk. One woman hugged me and, with tears in her eyes, told me that she didn’t know that one small act could be so powerful. She didn’t know that art could change our lives. Her life.

It can. It does. And it takes the collective to do it.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 5 July 2014

A few images: Sun Yat-Sen’s family home, lotus farm, Buddhist Temple. @2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, all rights reserved.20140704-215153.jpg
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An Artist’s Journey: China, 4 July 2014

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There’s nothing like teaching students who want to learn… who are hungry for knowledge.

The university was expecting 10 students for the photography workshop… 23 came through the door. Some with English, some with none. All had their cameras. None had ever worked with film, so that’s where I started.

I think they expected a “how-to” with their cameras… I wanted to give them a “how-to” be an artist with their minds, using a camera as a tool. I wanted them to know they could do more than shoot and print. They could take the photograph as far as they could imagine, then push it a bit further.

Not all of the techniques were available to them — Polaroid and infrared film, for example — but the idea was to push boundaries. Explore. Develop a critical eye. Create a personal style. Tell a story. These are not common ideas in China, but the students were receptive.

We continue with a shooting workshop on Saturday. Then I want to see their images. I can’t wait to see what they do.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 3 July 2014

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Zhongshan Street, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

Yesterday day was a slower day. We needed it.

We started with a late breakfast, then met a student’s of Renata’s for lunch. A short 20-minute walk in this heat and we arrive at a “western” coffee house, drenched. There is just enough air conditioning… not too much… to refresh us.

Sometimes it’s harder than I thought to find vegetarian food. Most places won’t just toss some vegetables in a wok for me. I must choose off the menu. Frankly, I’m already tired of black mushrooms, but all the food has been terrific. Lunch with the student is very pleasant, but she struggles with her English. I can tell how exhausted she is from the not so simple task of expressing herself. She does great!

After such a large meal, I cannot believe we are stopping at a Western bakery, but the cakes are terrific and the shopkeepers very friendly and accommodating.

20140703-073808.jpgA short walk back to the hotel, where I could prepare for my photography workshop today. THEN, to the Chinese hair salon for a hair washing: one hour of massage of head and body, and a hair treatment that my follicles will demand in the future!

Dinner was a fabulous Szechuan meal of green beans and eggplant and potatoes and tofu.

Ok. It was a luxury day. Now back to work!

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 2 July 2014

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School Boys, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Zhongshan, China

Zhongshan is not a tourist destination. It is not large — only 8 million people. I laugh when I’m told that. What would my hosts think of St. Louis in comparison?

Traffic is normal — not chaotic, not aggressive, not rushed. People have a place to go and they will get there.

The boulevards are wide. The sidewalks are wide. Pedestrians share the sidewalks with motorcycles and motor bikes. Pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way. Step onto the street at your peril.

Still, even in rush hour, there did not seem to be a crush of cars, bikes, people. The traffic was slowed a bit by the rain, but it was orderly in a fashion, and no tempers flared when a line of cars decided to increase the number of lanes from two to three in one direction, thus decreasing the number of lanes to one in the other.

I’ve been in a lot of cities around the world with horrible traffic. Mumbai was clearly the worst — a carnival ride every trip. But London, San Jose in Costa Rica, Milan, Florence, Mexico City, Dublin, Mumbai: traffic SCREAMED, honked, yelled, swerved. Aggressive pushing to get in front of a line that wasn’t moving. Me first. ME FIRST!

Beijing might be different, but in this small city of 8 million, the traffic doesn’t seem like traffic. It seems like order. And just where are these 8 million people?

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 1 July 2014

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Renata and I were treated like honored guests by two of Renata’s former students and one of the student’s parents. I have never felt so welcome and honored and special. Never.

Wonderful funny moments: my Mandarin was so badly pronounced that the few words I knew were unintelligible. Jen, Iris’ mom doesn’t speak English at all, her dad has a few words. Both were incredibly enchanting and loving. We made it through with laughs and jokes and gestures and the young women’s great translations.

They are using my Chinese name; we are using their English ones.

When the food arrived, Ashley leaned to Renata and quietly asked if I needed a fork. She didn’t want me to be embarrassed. I overheard and told her I could use chop sticks. Renata agreed. Then, of course, I had to pick up a tricky piece of food, veggies wrapped in tofu skin. Everyone at the table was watching… I had to eat first…. and then cheered and clapped when I successfully snatched it off the plate and into my bowl.

Not quite a “Nixon goes to China” moment, but a cultural victory nonetheless!

And the food was amazing!

Zhongshan, People’s Republic of China

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 30 June 2014

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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.

20140629-232557.jpg 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.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 7 am, 29 June 2014

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Incense offerings at Wong Tai Sin Temple, for the Daoist deities, Kowloon, Hong Kong, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

A few random thoughts about Hong Kong after 36 hours:

• Are there friendlier people on the planet? Truly kind, helpful, cheerful people. How do they keep it up in this heat?

• Summer in Hong Kong: OMG. This is not camping in the Florida Keys in August hot. It’s not St. Louis in a heat wave hot. It’s HOT! A humid. The air can be cut with a knife… and yes, you can see the air. Pollution is bad. I can’t imagine what this country would be without air conditioning and I don’t even what to know the public and environmental cost of keeping it on.

• When a Chinese person wears a mask in public, it’s probably not because he or she fearful of catching YOUR germs, it’s because he or she is not well and doesn’t want YOU to be sick. We could use some of that consideration for the collective in the West.

• Subways are clean and bright and nice smelling (even in a land without deodorant) and look like little shopping centers. The carriages are clean, graffiti-free, well air-conditioned and comfortable. The passengers are polite and considerate. Nine of ten people on the train are looking at their phone.

• Because everyone is looking at their mobile, the escalator announcements remind them to “look up from your mobile” before departing so they don’t slam their faces into the pavement, bloodying the floor and impeding foot traffic.

• The subway tracks are protected by sliding, transparent doors that open when the carriage arrives and closes when it departs. My first thought upon seeing that: “well, no way to push someone in front of a train here.” Have no idea why I thought that.

• Everything is for sale. EVERYTHING.

• The flower market in Yau Ma Tei section of Hong Kong, really four or five square blocks of shops, contain enough flowers to fill a hundred banquet halls and have hundreds left over to brighten all the nursing homes in North America. The orchids are exquisite. The bonsais are huge and must be several hundred years old. Cut flowers by the truck full. All look fresh and perfect. They must sell out because no one could stay in business tossing these out every few days.

• I haven’t seen cut flowers anywhere else I’ve been.

• The temples are the most inspiring creations of art, and people take their offerings seriously. Holy places.

• Very few people smoke.

• Cabs are cheap. Buses are cheaper. Subways are easy to negotiate. Getting around is easy.

• There is only a river that separates Greater Hong Kong (Kowloon & the New Territories) from the Mainland, and a small bay that separates the island of Hong Kong from the Kowloon. I thought they were much farther apart. The politics are interesting. Whole worlds are kept apart by a stream.

• Images Che & Mao are found on tourist items, presumably for tourists who think its funny to masquerade as freedom fighter/socialist/community/dictator, or who want to shock conservative family with communist souvenirs. No, I did not buy the Che hat or the Mao coasters. Seriously? Mao coasters?

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An Artist’ Journey: China, 6am, 28 June 2014

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Sunrise from Stanley House, Hong Kong. © 2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

This is no ordinary journey. This is an artists’ journey to teach, to learn, to expand a studio practice. This is a journey about people.

I landed in Hong Kong on Friday evening, 27 June 2014. The flight was one of the bumpier on record… attendants were in their jump seats for most of the flight. Oy! We’re talking 15 hours!

My dear friend, Renata, met me at the airport. She’s been in China since Monday to attend the graduation of students she had last year when she taught at university here. She and her graduating students have coordinated the lectures and workshops I will give, the family visits, the touring in the second week I’m here. Renata keeps telling me it’s vacation. I tell Renata is work. Wonderful, joyous work. And she is a partner in the work I will create.

We are staying at Maryknoll Stanley House (Google it!) high on a hill overlooking Hong Kong and the sea. I guess everything in Hong Kong is overlooking the sea! It’s a beautiful old retreat house for the Maryknoll priests and brothers. The religious iconography is everywhere. And these men love art. Catholic symbols? Sure. Of course. but also lots of Buddhist and other faith traditions. Like the Buddhists and the Hindus, these seem to be people who understand the many paths to god.

The rooms are spare and the bathroom is down the hall. I was glad to have a large pashmina to toss over my shoulders to cover the rather strappy summer nightgown, when I walked to the bathroom! Didn’t want to scandalize a priest…. really don’t need that kind of karma.

This is real travel, like the pensiones of Italy and the hostels in England and the cabins in Costa Rica. No fancy restaurant or lush hotel room, but a solid hard bed, a fan, and real people to meet and talk to.

Thanks for coming on this journey during the next two weeks. Hope for wifi!

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