When we immigrated to Montreal, I went to daycare while my parents were at work. My mom or dad would pick me up after lunch and we’d walk down the hill to our apartment. During those long afternoons, I spent hours doodling on stacks of paper with a juice box in one hand and a crayon in the other. I barely remember a life without art.
At age 4 or 5, I asked my father to draw Mickey Mouse. “OK kiddo,” he said with his usual swagger. After ten minutes, he showed me what appeared to be a badly-mangled cat. I looked at him askance; I had the uncanny feeling that I was better than him at something.
Eventually, art became my way of working through various phases. When I wanted to be fashion designer, I sketched hundreds of outfits; when I wanted to be an architect, I mapped out crude blueprints on construction paper.
When I ran out of coloring books, I filled in the lines of Life in Hell, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes anthologies that my parents had ordered in the mail, thinking they were for children (oh, how wrong they were). My first teachers were not Dr. Seuss and Robert Munsch, but rather Matt Groening, Gary Larson, and Bill Watterson. I learned to read by connecting the words and pictures inside the panels, but wouldn’t fully understand or appreciate the depth of their work until I was much older.
In Grade 6, Mom enrolled me in formal art lessons. They took place every Saturday at the same school where my sister and I suffered through Chinese classes. I chafed at the restrictions, making splotchy messes in watercolor and sketching bug-eyed aliens in portrait drawing. It didn’t help that the teacher spoke only Chinese, so the only piece of advice I retained was to “blur the drawing.” What?
One year later, Mom signed me up for private art classes. I slaved away on meticulous still lifes of apples, pears, eggs, cloth, and wine glasses that were, well, devoid of life. I had an inkling that I might not become an artist after all, especially if it meant years of perfecting the texture of orange peel before you were “allowed” to make anything creative. Predictably, I didn’t last very long.
For a while, I stopped drawing. Art had become a competition with other kids, a reminder of what I couldn’t achieve on paper. Sometimes there’d be the odd flash of inspiration when I had to illustrate a project for school, but attempts to make art in my spare time resulted in a string of crumpled-up drafts.
I began the long road back when I saw how happy art could make others – especially children. Often, all it takes for a child to come out from their shell is an invitation to draw. I find they make the best audience and collaborators, sitting rapt with attention as you transform a square into a football field, a football field into a music stand, a music stand into a lightbulb, and a lightbulb into a woman putting on her girdle. That mildly inappropriate artistic trick is courtesy of Far Side creator Gary Larson, by the way, who learned it from his father when he was a boy.
I never mastered the texture of orange peel, but I can make a kid laugh with a drawing of a bunny with crab legs who craves love from other, normal bunnies. So that’s pretty good.
Photos by Sijia Chen
This article originally appeared on p9 of the beijingkids May 2014 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com