Walking on the Road of Art

A visit to Jiang Yaping, head of Melbourne’s New Star Art School
By Li Ji

Having had some experience in the domain of art myself, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to talk with Ms Jiang Yaping, for the interview brings me back to relive those warm and amicable days spent in art classes, to relish the art teachers’ nurturing, which is both precious and unforgettable: suddenly I begin to feel that art is silently and unnoticeably transforming every tiny aspect of people’s lives. In fact its energy radiates far beyond your imagination.

◆ Yaping and her art school

The first time I met Yaping was at the school she had created – New Star Art. I still remember the extraordinary aura she emanates, as well as the confidence and resolve that accompanies her as she talks. In my heart it is the image of a perfect principal. Although the school is not big, every corner is filled with an atmosphere of art. Entire walls are covered with students’ colorful works that bear rich contents and varying techniques. The methods used to produce some of the works are quite mature, which is impressive considering the dominantly young age of students.

This art school, founded in 1997, deserves to be regarded as Yaping’s caring development over many years. Not only is it a place where dreams really take off, but also the place that witnesses those dreams’ continuing growth from strength to strength. Through her understanding of the Australian society and its way of art teaching, Yaping found the starting point for her school – to fill the gap between Chinese and Western art education. The school’s success and continued development has been a source of tremendous gratification for Yaping. Indeed, this is the result of her personal foresight and sagacity, her earnest drive and her tenacity in making her own dreams come true.

◆ A temporary departure from art

Yaping came to Australia in 1987. Ever since, fate has forged a close tie between her and this land. She had graduated from Sichuan Institute of Fine Art in China and had worked as a university teacher there, yet once setting foot on this strange place, she felt that she no longer owned anything. She was at a loss – the future and her career looked all but perplexing and uncertain. “As if I had been left alone in a desert,” she says, when she recalls the situation at that time. “All had been cut off.”

To make a living, hardworking Yaping found a job in a factory. When she received her first pay, she realised that she had the ability to survive in this capitalist country. Later, thanks to her diligence and outstanding performance, Yaping was transferred to a related technical department, saying good-bye to physical labour, and her new work environment was also a big improvement. She felt more confident about life in the future, and even planned to stay at the factory for a secure and stable life.

◆ Follow my heart

“But I could always feel a voice calling from my heart, that I had more to contribute to the society”. Yaping so describes what was on her mind during that period. Subsequently she decided to begin by gaining some knowledge about arts in Australia. Having successfully applied for art education studies at RMIT, she finally found her way back to the domain of art. Her excitement over the chance of advancing herself again in her chosen field was overwhelming. “I still remember that my first class at RMIT was oil painting, ten years after my last touch of brushes. Due to my busy work I could rarely see daylight. Every morning I left home before dawn, and didn’t return until complete darkness – the time in between was spent locked up inside the factory. During that period the colour of the sky in my memory was always dark. The moment I got hold of the painting brush again tears burst out of my eyes. I felt I had finally made it back,” says Yaping.

Her biggest gain from RMIT was the buildup of her confidence. Yaping was fully convinced that, to create a space for her own goals, she needed to find out, in the field of art, whether local teaching methodology and its Chinese counterpart could be combined. RMIT provided her with a very good platform for that purpose, where she not only familiarised herself with the theories and practice of teaching in Australia but also the professional levels of her Australian classmates who were to become school art teachers. She profoundly felt the difference between Chinese and Western art education. In China, art colleges focus on students’ acquisition of solid basic skills, while here emphasis is placed on giving free rein to students’ imagination instead of on the practice of techniques. “I discovered that my classmates struggled hard with their drawing and painting, something that I performed with complete ease. Their advantages lay in their dynamic thoughts and a strong hands-on ability,” Yaping recalls. Based on this understanding, she was fully confident that she had both the strength and the ability to fill the gap between the two countries. By the time she had already accumulated some teaching experience from home tuitions, which is a far cry from the time when she had first arrived in this land full of apprehension of the strange environment and uncertainty about the future. She was now an art teacher filled with conviction and confidence.

◆ The commencement of a career

After her graduation from RMIT, Yaping rented a school classroom to start her teaching. Although at the time she had only three or four students, which was financially unviable, she brushed aside any worries – “Just set out to turn my thoughts into action, that’s all.” Seeing more than 98% of fellow artists around her choose to give up and change their occupation in the field of art, she expressed total understanding: the cost of pursuing art is too high. It is very difficult to eke out a living through selling one’s own works at exhibitions.

Once her career was up and running, and seeing the results her students had achieved, Yaping was greatly heartened. She felt even more confident about herself. At the time she was closely following the efforts made by three of her female students in applying for art scholarships from a girls’ college in Toorak. It was very difficult for applicants outside the college to obtain such scholarships. Yet through Yaping’s tuitions tailored specifically for that purpose, all three students succeeded in getting an offer. “This gave me an enormous boost, as it proved that my way of teaching was both very practical and successful. And it was also a recognition of all the endeavour I had made,” says Yaping, confidence and pride sparkling in her eyes.

◆ New explorations in teaching

Accidentally, Yaping had a chance to be interviewed for the position of teaching Chinese calligraphy at the University of Melbourne. As a result, with her degrees in fine arts and art education, she conducted Chinese calligraphy classes in Melbourne Uni for seven years, an experience that has broadened the prospect of her dreams. Teaching at UM stays a very nice part in Yaping’s memory. Although at the time her English was not that fluent, she handled both the preparation for her classes and the actual teaching with earnest and conscientiousness. In order to get the best results, she once again went through the Chinese history and incorporated it into her curriculum. Facing her students’ special cultural background, she put aside the traditional sequence of learning Chinese calligraphy that starts with the Yan-characteristic kaishu style. Instead, she began by teaching the lishu style. “This very much suits students from a non-Chinese background, because the silkworm-head and swallow-tail features of the lishu style is like painting. As long as you can get the feel, you’ll do fine.” Yaping’s teaching method, based on the particular circumstances of her classes, was highly valued by the students, and their Chinese calligraphy exhibition at the end of the course became a sensation at the university.

A report about an interview with her was also published in the university bulletin, and the vice chancellor, for this matter especially, wrote to the related professor praising Yaping, saying the department of Chinese should feel proud about it. As a result, the Chinese calligraphy course became increasingly popular and the enrolment kept growing, from the initial six students to more than one hundred. “Standing behind the lectern in the amphitheatre and facing students from all around the world gave me a great feeling of achievement,” Yaping still can’t help expressing her excitement when she recalls the scene years back.

◆ Economic benefits vs social values

Since then, Yaping has devoted all her energy to the art school. As the principal, she still plays a hands-on role. She has, through successful applications, won support from Victorian Multicultural Commission for the school. “When they saw our children’s works they were impressed. They saw the excellence and significance these works stood for, so they provided us with a lot of help in such areas as; applying for government grants, participating in Multicultural Week activities and holding exhibitions in many Melbourne art galleries,” Yaping tells me. All this has further boosted her confidence in the school’s development.

Here she adds that although she is not as rich as her friends from the finance and investment sector, she still feels very happy. On the question of career selection, she is in total agreement with American talk show hostess Oprah’s view that the job of a host/hostess is the best in the world, because they can use interviews as a soul guide for more people to discover themselves. As an educator, Yaping believes teaching can best embody a person’s value in society. Meanwhile she feels that she is very lucky for doing what she is good at, that the career she loves is significant for society. “A very successful friend thinks that what I’m doing is enviable, because I’m using art to develop children’s souls,” Yaping proudly recalls. “And that is indeed the case – sowing the seed of art in their very young heart, and watching it germinate and root bit by bit is very much gratifying.”

◆ Every child is an artist

Yaping believes that the teacher is the soul in the process of teaching, whereas the children are like pieces of blank paper, thus all depends on the teacher’s instructions. “As long as the teaching method is right, every child is an artist.” So it is her requirement that teachers of the school must not strangle the children’s ideas. Instead, they should encourage them to develop the power of imagination and innovative ways to express their thoughts. They should stand at art’s forefront to absorb new things and enrich themselves continuously. “There’s no question of what to draw and paint. The only question there is how to draw and paint.” Yaping tells me that every child has the potential to create good pieces of work. As both a teacher and head of school, she says her utmost satisfaction is seeing parents’ admiration of their child’s works and the happy surprise on their faces, which is a reflection of successful teaching.

Art’s influence on a person is also limitless. For example, there used to be an introverted student who always drew very small figures, and Yaping guided him to change that habit through drawing large ones. It is possible that that habit was formed due to a very strict family supervision under which the child was subject to frequent criticism and restrictions that affected his personality. As a result of Yaping’s teaching, gradually the parents of this student discovered that their child had changed. Not only did the style of his art works become more unfettered and expressive, but his personality was also morphing into an optimistic and outgoing one. Yaping says, “Through drawing and painting, it is possible to cultivate the mentality of dealing with a matter first as a whole, then proceeding to each of its components. Therefore I believe that learning art is very beneficial. Art is more important than anything else in soul edification, since it can affect your ability to observe, and the way you consider, a question. For example, you will be able to learn how to view and ponder a problem from multiple perspectives and through multiple layers. Those who have never been trained in art are unable to see and feel a lot of things, such as the quality of life – only with a rich soul can one become aware of all the nice details in life and thus truly enjoy it.”

◆ Artists vs art educators

Many people have asked Yaping why, between the artist and the art educator, she has chosen the latter. Her reply is very convincing – although artists have shining titles, they tend to concentrate on their own feelings, whereas art educators are dedicating their contributions to the society when they pass on knowledge and concepts, so the latter have a greater influence. And from this point of view, art educators’ work is more meaningful. As to her plans for the future, Yaping says there are many stages in one’s life, and currently she leans towards education. In the future she may hold exhibitions of her own works as part of her quest for perfection and innovation. Whether an artist or an art educator, there is one thing that is for sure – Yaping has never stopped on her way to pursue her dreams.