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Opening the Doors to Creativity

back to May-June Issue
by Tim Lantz

A local art school offers an environment of creative freedom to foster the talents of both young and old.

After finding normal art schools too rigid, Sima Weiming and Xiao Mo, both painters, became convinced that they could provide a place in Dalian where students could experiment with any kind of art they wanted to. In 1998, they started MyArt Painting Creation Limited. Since 2004, the school’s been located on the eighteenth floor of the Sunshine Digital Tower, 596 Huangpu Road, in Dalian’s High-Tech Industrial Zone, housing three studios, each with two floors.

Sima, the general manager, opens the door to the first studio and its welcoming smell of paint. Here the students’ work lines the walls and stands in front of us on easels. Many small canvases lie drying on the floor, obviously just painted not many days before our arrival. On one table is the evidence of hard work: dried paint in the colors found in the art around us. But paint and canvases aren’t the only materials available. Some of the art in this room looks interactive. It’s made out of circuit boards and other parts of computers. Great globs of paint make one look at vertical and horizontal surfaces from their edges, from the sides rather than the front. Bumps and scratches in paint show many layers of composition. The cords of computer mice are tangled together and hang near Sima’s desk, behind which is displayed an award from an American art show, “The Colors of China: Painting, Calligraphy & Children’s Art, 2009.” It’s difficult to tell where the art materials end and where daily objects begin.

Sima shows us the Future Artists Series, catalogues the school puts out, each issue of which showcases the work of one student. The students on many of the covers are young children. Their biographical sketches list their birthdays in the 1990s. Some of them have already had shows and sold their work in the West. Sima smiles and points out their early achievements. A flip through these catalogues is enough to get you excited about the students’ work and interested in mixed media: even on the flat page, the materiality of the work in the pictures makes you wonder what’s underneath. What are these students capable of? What materials are going to be important to them?

Before we climb the stairs to see more of the first studio, in walks York—a twenty-year-old artist who spends much of his time at MyArt. He’s quiet and looks simultaneously excited and confident. York, aka Jin Ge, began painting when he was a young boy. According to his curriculum vitae, he established his own studio when he was eleven years old. His oeuvre encompasses several media, styles, and moods. A great many of his paintings, like Venice I and Venice II, contain a powerfully present black against an almost-misty green, which evokes a distance and calm that seems about to be populated or just evacuated. Other paintings, like Tokyo Night, suggest movement with their bright reds, yellows, and whites. He’s begun experimenting with photography and sometimes paints from the photos he’s taken. When I ask him about his influences, he pulls out a copy of La guerre, a novel by J. M. G. Le Clézio, a Nobel Prize–winning French writer known for his focus on the environment. Stacked high on the floor of the first upstairs area are dozens of canvases, their content each a single color, oil paint mixed with water. To make these, York poured the mix onto the canvases and then tilted them, allowing the mix to go where it would. The results resemble clouds. York says he likes the idea of not being able to control the paint, only the tilt. A great deal of white space occupies each canvas, giving an unfinished feel to them.

“York can go very far in the realm of art if he keeps working as hard as he has been,” Sima says when York’s out of earshot, “because he keeps trying new arrangements.” The stacks of his work are a testament to his tenacity.

On the walls of the first studio’s second level hang several paintings of nude women surrounded by cityscapes, the bodies and buildings edging into each other’s territory. Many of the women are blue, with cats nearby. These paintings also have a lot of white space, the contrast of which directs the eye to the boundary between touched and untouched. There is something satisfying about not filling up every possible space. In some of the paintings, helicopters have crash-landed and become stuck in the trees of some faraway place. The pilots now live in these trees and bright colors. These paintings all bear the signature of Xiao Mo.

The second studio is the student gallery, and upstairs is where York works. There’s so much space, both in the art and in the physicality of the building. There’s so much room to move around in, so many angles from which to think. What does one do in this space? What’s next to be made? Being here inspires creativity. The furniture is arranged as though at any moment a slow, well-thought-out discussion of aesthetics would commence. The books of art from many other countries take up the shelves around York’s desk. He climbs through an open window, out onto the balcony where he often works, and beckons us to follow. Sima points out the view: the ocean in so many directions. In the warm months ahead, this will be a beautiful place to create from, eighteen floors up and entirely quiet.

Later we find Xiao Mo connecting pipes in the third studio the space is dominated by fittings in large crates. All the pipes loop around each other, none of them leading out. “It looks rather simple,” York points out, “but it’s actually very complex. Pipes connect everything we need, like water and gas. Most of the time, we don’t see the huge system around us.” Some of the structures are only waist-high. Others, like the one Xiao Mo is working on, are above heads.

On the second floor of the third studio, we find the only other student in the school today. She works quietly, mixing her paints into the gray of a building. Here Sima and York expand on some of the ideas of the school. In these studios, students can do whatever they want, with little instruction. It’s more important, for example, to provide the colors than to show the students how to mix them. If a student gets stuck, the teachers happily point out possibilities of beginnings and continuations. At first, it’s important that young artists find what they’d like to work on, York says. Students critique themselves.

In York’s catalogue, Xiao Mo has written that students “need to have enough effective time and energy to draw broader and more classical…elements of civilization. They need to have freedom, independence and automatic progress.” Sima shows us structures made out of plastic bendy straws. She tries to remember the ages of the people who made them, somewhere between eight and eleven. It seems as though she wants to get their ages right in order to highlight what’s possible when students are left to create freely.

In addition to providing space in its studios, the school also arranges many trips, both nationally and abroad, to see and make art and to meet other artists. “An artist must see things,” York says. Images from Egypt and Greece show up in some of the work on the walls and in the catalogues, for example.

As the students interact with other cultures, and as expats join the community in Dalian, creativity becomes more and more important in our efforts to understand each other. “Art is so close to our lives. It’s just like language,” York says. MyArt provides just the right atmosphere for fostering the excitement that artists need in order to imagine new ways of interaction.


Read other articles by Tim Lantz:
Five Color City
The American International School