Inspired by Zao Wou-Ki, Students Show off Artworks

Third graders from P.S. 145 in Manhattan, with their collage work. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

How would a late Chinese-French artist communicate with students of diverse backgrounds in New York public schools? Via art, of course.

“Inspired by Zao Wou-Ki: Works by New York City Students,” an exhibition unveiled at the Asia Society on May 22, shows how. The exhibition presents artworks of students from four elementary schools that were created after the students viewed “No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki,” an exhibition of the work of the postwar abstract painting master at the Asia Society. The students’ works, which are in various formats from collage to sculpture, reflect their understanding of Zao and their thoughts on diversity, tolerance and cultural heritage. The exercise has clearly boosted their confidence and ambitions too. “These [efforts] are only one step in becoming a great artist,” said Jie Fu, a fifth grader from P.S. 145 in Brooklyn.

The exhibition is part of the arts education program of the Asia Society. For the past 23 years, the institute has been collaborating with Studio in a School, a nonprofit art education organization, to invite public school students to its annual fall exhibition and encourage them to make their own artworks afterward. “No Limits,” running from last September to January, was the first retrospective of Zao’s work in the U.S. It presented 49 works the artist created through his career of more than 60 years from oil painting and ink painting to engraving and watercolor.

Zao, one of the earliest Chinese artists to win international fame, was born in Beijing and grew up in Shanghai and Hangzhou. In 1948 he moved to Paris where he was influenced by the European art schools. His work combined the aesthetics and skills of Chinese calligraphy and ink painting and the European pictorial tradition and formed a unique style of modern abstraction.

Students from P.S. 152 in the Bronx, P.S. 123 and P.S. 145 in Brooklyn and P.S. 145 in Manhattan participated in the program. They said they were impressed by Zao’s absorption of different cultures, as well as the way his work is rooted in his own cultural heritage. Under the instruction of their teachers, the few dozen students spent five to six months creating 17 pieces of artworks for the follow-up exhibition.

Jolie Arroyo and Destiny Quinones, 5th graders of P.S 123, are among the students who participated. Coming from Honduras and Puerto Rico respectively, the two are good friends. The 17 students in their class created a sculpture from papier-mâché based on their stories of two girls from different countries wearing traditional dresses of their own cultures and having fun in New York. “I love this city because I can meet new people and see new things here,” said Arroyo who emigrated to New York when she was 4. “In Zao’s work, you can see Chinese culture and French culture, just like we can see a lot of cultures in New York,” said Quinones.

The 5th graders from P.S. 145 in Brooklyn created four vases from papier mâché themed on different animals. They said they made these vases not only as a homage to Zao who decorated vases too, but also to send a message that people and animals and people and other people should coexist peacefully.

Fu, the only Chinese student among them, feels Zao’s work touch his heart. “He’s put a lot of hidden meaning in his artworks which you can only understand when you go beyond the surface,” said Fu, who moved to New York from Wenzhou, China, in 2011. “He is the pride of us Chinese people.”

To Nancy Blume, head of arts education at the Asia Society and the curator of the exhibition, the meaning of the practice is not confined by art. “I am so impressed by how the children absorb new cultures and how creative they are,” said Blume. “The writing and public speaking that’s involved when they presented their works and the teamwork in creating them all remind us how important art education is.”

The exhibition will be on display through Aug. 6. Asia Society is located at 725 Park Ave., Manhattan.

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