Muralist Jiang Zhuqing on creating art and family
On a recent Tuesday, painter Jiang Zhuqing had yet to put the finishing touches on work that would soon be on public display. As part of Common Ground, a digital art festival that takes place at the Huan Tie Art Museum from November 9 to 19, Jiang plans to show an abstract creation that use cassette tape ribbon and black hair clips to embroider a human shape.
Titled Li Yue (礼 乐), or “Etiquette, Music,” these works are part of a series Jiang calls Tian Ren He Yi (天人合一), or “The Combining of Humans and Nature.” She says she hopes to make people think about the important relationship between human beings and the world.
In a few weeks time, more than 40 artists from around the world will present works on the theme of the environment. Jiang, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s Academy of Art and Design, decided to take part in Common Ground after she saw how innovative the other artists’ works were.
“Here, artists use new technology to present art. Doing the same could enrich my painting style,” says Jiang, speaking slowly and quietly in a way that suggests she never loses her temper. Sitting in her studio at Tsinghua University, Jiang is surrounded by many works in progress. On the floor is a brown-hued portrait of a woman in traditional Chinese clothing. Nearby lies another unfinished work, a painting of a group of children playing.
In many ways Jiang epitomizes the current generation of Chinese contemporary artists who have found success. Born in Qingdao, she studied decorative art at Beijing Central Academy of Arts and Design. After graduating in 1991, Jiang took up a professorship at Tsinghua, all the while rising in stature as an artist by designing murals, experimenting with different mediums like animation, and exhibiting her work in China and abroad.
At the same time, Jiang is also an unconventional woman. The fortysomething artist gave birth to her son just a few years ago and is raising him mostly by herself – a relatively unusual occurrence in a country where young women typically marry in their mid-twenties.
Jason, her 4-year-old son, came as an unexpected gift, says Jiang. On her desk sits a picture of Jason, a boy with dark hair, and Jiang’s eyes light up as she talks about her most precious creation. Jiang met her husband, also an artist, while teaching art in Los Angeles ten years ago.
“I am different from women who have their baby in their twenties,” says Jiang, who has an abundance of patience and is fiercely independent. “They grow up with their children, but at my age, I am more tolerant and more forgiving of my son’s mistakes.”
Jiang gave birth to Jason in the US, then brought him back to China 100 days later. Both parents are dedicated to their respective careers, and so have chosen to live in their own countries most of the time – an arrangement that they’re happy with.
Unlike some other Chinese parents, Jiang isn’t very eager for Jason to be bilingual right now, or to have a lot of Western influences. “Many Chinese parents want their children to learn in the Western style, but I hope he can learn more Chinese traditional culture,” says Jiang.
Jason’s English isn’t fluent, and sometimes the boy needs Jiang’s help to communicate with his father on visits, but Jiang isn’t worried. It’s better to master one language first before starting on another, the artist says, and she’s confident Jason won’t have trouble polishing his English skills.
As Jiang is the parent with nearly all the childcare duties, being a mother sometimes seems more of a challenge than being an artist. Since she teaches, though, Jiang’s schedule is quite flexible and she has the luxury of spending a lot of time with her son. But like many moms in the city, Jiang struggles over decisions like whether to send Jason to an international school or keep him in Chinese schools. And she worries that, by spending so much time with her, Jason might grow up with too much of a feminine influence.
In Beijing, Jiang often takes Jason around to attend art exhibitions, but so far her son hasn’t shown a special interest in art. It’s okay with Jiang, though. The artist and mother, no stranger to unconventionality herself, won’t be pressuring him to follow her wishes.