My First Class with Jerry Chen | Eden Tai | 2019 PH
Four days after arriving to Taipei on August 8, I joined my project partner Irene at a pith paper flower class taught by Jerry Chen. We were greeted by Jerry and Kuei Mei, our main advisor, at the Taiwan Nature Trail Society office. Although Irene had arrived a few days before me and therefore already met everyone, it was my first time meeting the people we would work with for the next five months. Everyone was so welcoming and eager to work with us to support the continuation of pith traditions.
Jerry Chen, who originally majored in furniture design, learned about tong cao(pith) through an assignment given by a client who was interested in “green” materials. After doing research about existing materials which are marketed as sustainable, Jerry came to the conclusion that many “green” options did not meet his own standards of sustainability. Although he is a skilled pith flower maker and teacher, Jerry also wants to explore the possibilities of using pith beyond arts and crafts. But for today, the focus was on flowers.
Jerry gave us each a kit in a ziplock bag which included hand-dyed and cut pieces of pith. Today’s lessons would be on jasmine flowers and cherry blossoms. Working with pith for the first time was way more fun than I expected. It looks like normal paper, but feels like thin foam. When sprayed lightly with filtered water (tap water can cause the pith to discolor over time), it becomes soft and moldable. When dried, it keeps its new shape. The lesson involved lots of spraying, manipulating with various tools, drying, and assembling pieces with string and glue. Jerry, who has been practicing pith flowers for about 20 years, makes it look effortless. As a first-time student, there was a lot of trial and error. I was so focused on the project that I didn’t realize how much time had passed! After six hours, we still hadn’t completed our flower arrangements. We took the remaining pieces home to complete ourselves.
Handling the material for the first time gave me a new appreciation for pith paper, pith flowers, and the community surrounding it. I have never worked with anything like this before! Now that I have experience with pith, I feel more prepared to help Kuei Mei and the other tong cao researchers, artists, and enthusiasts research new applications for pith paper. This is an aspect of our collaboration which I hadn’t considered before. Soon, I will begin collecting footage for our documentary as Irene continues her writing, research, and flower lessons.