As I was growing up in China, all my upbringing was to be like others, that oneself is not special; one should aim for the group. Then, one of my first impressions upon arriving in the United States in 1987, was of the TV show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and especially phrases of his that have stayed with me all these years: “You are special. There is no one in this wide world like you. You are special.” This encouraging repetition was new for me. For the past 25 years, then, my perceptions have been filtered through two very different sets of values: the suppression of the individuality to the larger group, and on the other hand, the celebration of the individual’s uniqueness. The result is my underlying collectivist approach matched with individualistic divergent thinking, which has blossomed in the U.S.
My frequent experience of opposites – feeling different and yet the same as others – has had echoes throughout my art practice, paradoxes of various kinds. I celebrate each individual’s differences in group contexts, which have the energy of ‘Out of One, Many’ – the opposite of e pluribus unum. In my own art, I feel equally comfortable painting portraits or landscapes or doing a performance painting piece, or constructing an outdoor installation. One of the omnipresent aspects of my practice is the process of ‘stepping into’ and ‘out of’ myself.
In my instruction of Chinese art/language/culture, I find value in empowering students of all ages to find their own ‘artist within’ through group shared activities that recognize the value and contribution of each participant. Through Chinese calisthenic exercises, t’ai chi, read-aloud, and song, done as a group, and choral response, learners can communicate with their own bodies, according their own comfort zones, striving for their own mastery with the potential to attain their own unique experiences of enlightenment.
Growing up with brush and ink calligraphy, I still constantly feel the parallel between my learning and development and the dynamics within Chinese calligraphic art: Each part of the whole is dynamically related to the other parts and crucial to the meaning of the whole. Though I name each calligraphy stroke, each is interdependent with the other strokes and yet by itself cannot be a word. Just as we cannot leave out one stroke to convey the meaning of the character-word, likewise I believe each human participant can be an artist and have a valued and crucial role in community activity.
Then: From the Many, One. All I do I enjoy to do it because of Art and because it is all Art. Daily life is art, for me. Art is everything I am familiar with. There is no such thing for me as not having time to do art. Everywhere I go, everything I do, is art. Even eating and sleeping is art. To adapt Orsino in Twelfth Night: If music be the food of art, play on. I substitute the word ‘art’ for ‘love’ because art, like love, is about energy. The qi is everywhere. It is not only inner energy in and around our bodies, but also the wind, also the homeostasis of the planet. Qi moves me when I use a mop or trowel or broom as a brush. This resolution into unity happens alongside my feeling to be a citizen first and foremost of the Earth, my feeling that whatever insights and energies are going on in Chinese and my art, these energies and insights are in other languages too. Makes me want to try Arabic and other languages with flowing writing, words/symbols/sounds that can also be expressed as in ancient times, sticklike.
The last two years, along with performance mop paintings, monumental portraits, and installations that dance in the wind, I am also celebrating art as food, food as art, the whole cooking process as art. This is coming back to art as daily life: My family like many in China spent much time on food and food preparation. I was born during a famine, but even in times of relative plenty, the main focus of living has often been food.