Valda Hsu doesn’t want Chinese culture to be learned only through books and movies, so she teaches the Mandarin language and Asian art.
On Tuesday, she shared the techniques and meanings of Chinese brush painting with students participating in Camp Blue Sky, the annual summer arts camp held at State Fair Community College. The theme for this year’s camp is “Far Out East: Raku, Haiku and How To.”
Hsu, who works with Kansas City Young Audiences, was born in Taiwan, but half of her family lives in China. She is pleased with Americans’ increased interest in learning about China.
“It is a culture we need to know, to give us a greater worldview,” she said. “If you want to teach culture to students, I have learned you need to bring the arts to them.”
She shared with the students the “four treasures of the artist’s studio” — paper, ink, a bamboo brush and ink stone, which is ground and used to make ink. But she said she has added a fifth treasure, paper towel, which is used to control the flow of ink on the page.
She said that before the Chinese invented paper, they wrote on animal bones and frequently carved their messages because they wanted something lasting. Those symbols evolved into their written language.
She showed the students how to hold their bamboo brushes, with the thumb on one side and four fingers on the other.
“Be Chinese for the time being,” she told them, as she instructed them to coat their brushes generously with ink and make bold lines on their pages.
“Take this line, celebrate this moment,” she said. “Your line should be determined, but not dominant. ... It reveals who you are. If you hesitate, it shows.”
After showing how to make bamboo leaves, she worked her way around the classroom, checking on students’ work, offering plenty of encouragement: “You did beautifully,” she told one student. “Very nice.”
Hsu showed the students how to read Asian paintings — that an image that appears to be just bamboo actually holds symbols of family and neighbors.
“These were not just for decoration; the artists were trying to say something,” she said noting that through history, Chinese people were not able to speak out due to government restrictions, so they expressed themselves covertly through art, poetry and drama.
Student Zach Allison, 12, was impressed to learn how the paintings told stories.
“I hadn’t thought of that before,” he said.
Chelsea Smith, 12, said, “It’s amazing they did this before the invention of paper,” adding that she found the use of animal bones as a canvas “kinda gross.”
This is Zach’s third year in Camp Blue Sky.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “There are a lot of different things we get to do.”
At the beginning of the lesson, Hsu pointed out that the bamboo brushes don’t come with erasers.
“This painting is about capturing the moment,” she said, while later assuring the students, “Every experience you have will teach you.”