From Miami to China: the soul of an artist

Fine arts major Nathalie Alfonso, 26, has an ongoing interest in creating community among artists. She believes that sharing with one another will lead to better practices and richer creative work, and so last year she initiated a program that encourages young artists in Miami to meet for just those reasons.

This summer she wanted to expand her experience. While she has already worked with artists in Ecuador and has some knowledge from her native Colombia (and now Miami), Alfonso most recently decided to go to China. She enrolled in an FIU study abroad program organized by Art & Art History Professor Lidu Yi, during which she met some of the country’s best-known contemporary artists, many of whom are world famous. Perhaps more importantly, she wrote up a formal proposal for a side project that had her travel to Beijing 10 days before the rest of the group. Her plan: to get to know and understand her Chinese peers, artists who were either in their final year of school or recently graduated.

Alfonso stayed in the dorms of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and spent her days touring the school’s facilities and talking to students. The visit inspired her to consider returning to China next year to live and work for an extended period. She reflects here upon her stay.

By Nathalie Alfonso

I don’t think an artist can be fully successful by him- or herself. Young artists, in particular, can help one another by staying in contact and exchanging information as we transition from school to the professional world. Outside of classes, one way I have tried to take charge of my growth and build confidence has been connecting with other artists so that I can understand their processes, interests and concerns.

My curiosity led me to wonder how young people in China fare as they start out on their own. Initially, I was afraid that communication might be a problem—I am a native Spanish speaker who learned English just eight years ago when my family moved to Miami—but a professor from the academy who came to the airport for me and my two FIU companions introduced me to  English-speaking students to get me started.

natalie and friends II

“We are not that different.” Natalie Alfonso, far right, with fellow FIU student Yemail Sanchez, in jean jacket, and students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Alfonso, an art student herself, set out to better understand “the processes, interests and concerns” of her peers in China.

One of them, Aisha, is currently finishing up her bachelor’s degree in printmaking. Often I saw her working day and night, well past 11 p.m., when I would pass the school studios to return to my room. I estimate that students there spent 60 hours outside of class per week working on their pieces.

I also observed students’ formal training in traditional fine arts, among them Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy. Whether majoring in printmaking, painting, drawing, ceramics or sculpture, a student must study the older forms. It is not unusual to meet young artists who can, for example, replicate Chinese or even Western masterpieces down to the last detail.

My own experience has not included a lot of emphasis on such foundational work. I see both positives and negatives in Chinese art education. For one, it requires strict discipline and lots of practice, both of which are good for artists. I myself have learned from the example of Chinese students, and now I practice my drawing skills every day.

On the other hand, the focus makes their transition to experimental forms more difficult. The Chinese are used to following hard rules, and such rigidity can make individual creativity more challenging.

Contrast this with what I experienced during the FIU study abroad program that followed my initial stay in China. Our group was fortunate to meet some of the country’s luminaries of contemporary art, among them Xu Bing and Wang Qingsong (both of whom will be presenting shows at FIU’s Frost Art Museum during this coming school year). They have international followings and command respect from their countrymen. That was not always the case, however. At first these artists were not accepted in China because their art broke with tradition and appeared “too Western.”  Today they are an important influence not only on Chinese artists but the rest of us too.

The people of China—the students, the professors and even the renowned artists I met—showed me great kindness, and their openness made me feel at home. In the end, I found that Chinese students worry about the same things as their American counterparts: how to make a living after graduation; the best way to keep creating art; and the merits of various graduate programs. We are not that different.

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