The trip to Chang Tang, now recalling from memory, feels like a distant past, even though the last night we spent at the plateau was only a week ago.
By the beginning of the last month of the internship, Liang and I arrived at Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Situating at 4000 meter above sea level(approximately 13120 ft), Lhasa is the center of temples and Tibetan buddhism pilgrims, the home to Dalai Lama, the intersections of different businesses, the high light of chapters in history books and the holy land of hippies.
It is, also where the headquarter of WCS’s Tibetan branch office have placed themselves. In a two stories apartment-styled home, total number of four employees wrote proposals, had meetings and prepared for their many journeys into the wilderness of Chang Tang.
Lan Zhou Jia and Duo Jie Jia are the two Tibetan employees who had been working for WCS for couple of years. Lan Zhou Jia is a very quiet middle aged man with two adorable children. Liang told me not to under-estimate Lan Zhou Jia’s shyness. “He transforms into a super talkative, passionate ‘beast’ when he’s advocating the importance of conservation to Tibetan nomads,” he said, “the perfect man for community works.” Duo Jie Jia (he preferred us calling him Duo Jie) is relatively younger and came along with us on this trip to Chang Tang. Later on I found out that he is very fluent in English, Mandarin and Tibetan as well as being really knowledgeable in plant species and their latin names. There is also Liang, my supervisor and Jia Jia, a girl from Beijing, who I never had a chance to meet since she had been out on a business trip while I was there.
There were five of us went up to Chang Tang together in total. Liang, Duo Jie, Ling Yun, Ya Ya and I. Ling Yun just finished her postdoctoral position at Beijing University, researched specifically on snow leopards in the highlands and worked as one of the core researcher at Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve that I mentioned in the first blog post. She is now very interested in studying the ecology niche of ‘hoofed’ animals (wild yak, Tibetan antelope, gazelle, wild donkey, argali and Marco Polo sheep) in Chang Tang. Ya Ya (nickname) is from Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region adjacent to Tibet. Started as a bird watching hobbyist, she established a non-profit organization called Wild Xinjiang, couple of years ago. This organization gathered volunteers across ages and disciplines to advocate for the biodiversity on the vast landscape of Xin Jiang.
Being the only person came from a greatly different education background(different fields and educated in a different country), they were very curious about my purpose there. While trying to explain my intension in cross-discipline learning and collaboration, I realized a gap in the communication between my interest and their understanding of contemporary art. Liang thought that after I learnt about conservation in the past month, it would be a good time for me to put together a presentation and show them the world of art that I was interested in.
The presentation was really a tool for igniting conversations, which worked very well among the five of us. That day we spent a lot of time together while in the office, or out for a walk, or over hotpot, talking about Joseph Beuys, social sculpture, performance lecture, pedagogy as art, community, history of science, the collective knowledge, the imagined future……
With a lot of new thoughts and ideas on our minds, we shopped for supplies, packed our pickup truck and soon got on the road to Chang Tang.
At the beginning of each meeting, Liang usually preferred a general information on villager’s perspective of Tianxing’s situation.
Their answer was always positive.
Recent years, Chinese government had been promoting conservation. Meanwhile many Chinese local conservation organizations such as Cloud Mountain started to emerge.
Under the increasing awareness of conservation, villagers had paid a lot more attention to Tianxing for the past years. Forest rangers had detected newborn Tianxing in some of the areas. Every morning, people living around the habitat can hear Tianxing wailing at each other, across mountain ranges (one of Tianxing’s distinct characteristic is that they communicate through wailing at each other far away)
They said hunting in general had disappeared because of government’s strict policy. Poaching or other illegal activities does not exist either. Although in some villages people admitted there are still a few of these activities left.
An overarching characteristic of these villages is that they are all in different levels of poverty. The reason is partially because of the villages being situated in remote areas and enclosed by the mountains. Many of the villages we interviewed had a large population of children or elderlies. Increasing tuition fee for children and medication bills became one of the burdens for every family. Also as the result, young people stayed home instead of working in bigger cities so that they can take care of their children and parents.
For most people who stayed, there are only a few sources of income, and none of them had made enough money for living. Bamboo forests around the villages provide them bamboo shoot for food(yet tall bamboo tree is also an important vegetation for Tiangxing to be mobile in their habitat). Crops like rice, tea (some areas), nuts and sugar cane are planted in the fields for a little income.
Similar to villagers in Myanmar, people in Ying Jiang also cultivate a plant called Cao Guo. It is a ground covering plant, with approximately only 9 ft tall and in the same family as cardamum.
Many years ago, Myanmar had a big snow storm that killed most of their Cao Guo, which then led to a price bloom for this plant in China. Cao Guo had dominated villager’s income. As the result, people in Ying Jiang had increased their Cao Guo’s cultivation area and led to disruptions of Tian Xing’s habitat. Cao Guo also requires abundant water, not too high in altitude, and tall trees (so they can be shielded from the sun.) Because the plant is relatively low to the ground comparing to the trees Tian Xing relies on, the plant itself isn’t completely a direct emergent conservation threat to Tian Xing, but there might be many potential indirect threats as the consequence of cultivating Cao Guo.
The bubble of Cao Guo economy popped therefore the price dropped significantly, Unfortunately 2019 had been a drought year, which resulted in very minimum Cao Guo harvest right now. The villagers’s general income had decreased by a lot.
On top of that, winter in Ying Jiang is very cold due to high altitude. Every family in these villages has elderly and children. They are desperately in need of logs to get through winter. Some spend money to purchase logs in the village. Yet with the un-diversified sources of income on top of decreasing value of Cao Guo, many villagers sometimes do not have a choice other than make lumber for themselves.
Similar situation happens to house constructions too. Under poverty, some villagers cannot build houses that are made out of concrete. The cheapest way is to go into forest, cut down some trees and build the house by themselves.
Therefore, when their will of saving a species is confronted by practical income and basic survival, who are we to criticize that they choose to survive a winter instead of saving a tree or two for the animals?
Liang and Cloud Mountain Conservation’s job here is to find possible solutions, that these villagers don’t have to rely so much on cultivating Cao Guo; don’t have to cut down trees to have warmth in winter, or to have a comfortable home; don’t have to worry so much about not be able to pay for their children’s school, or pay the medical bills for their elderly. And still many more questions asking to be sought out.
After we came home from this field trip, I had a long conversation with Liang, talking about our general understanding on conservation, as well as the phenomenons that him and I had observed in the past few days.
From what I had discovered, in a general picture, a conservation organization’s job is to design structures based on the state of the habitat and analyze the possibilities of each different outcome in the process of conservation. In Ying Jiang, they first came up with assumptions of possible conservation threats (Cao Guo cultivation as one of the many for Tianxing, for example.) Then, with the threats identified, to raise questions like ‘how is cultivating Cao Guo a threat or ‘is the threat coming from the location of the crops or the methods of growing.’ Having these question in mind, the organization then needs a methodological way to find out answers to these questions.
The structure of conservation strategies is like the heart of the project that also has its own fluidity. Designing it should consider not only science (biology, environmental science, microbiology, botany etc) but also sociology, humanity, history, economy, psychology, art and much more. Each action might have multiple potential outcomes that then determines which actions might be better for that specific time and place. It is fascinating to see the factors of certainty and ambivalence, which seemingly are opposite to each other, be synchronized and be harmonious with each other. The push and pull is achieved by a repeated process of raising and resolving questions that derived from a pool of cross-discipline knowledge.
I couldn’t help but wonder— under the umbrella of conservation strategies, what is the perspective of art? Does art, as a potential element in a conservation plan, only engages at a certain stage of this plan? Or maybe art has the potential to understand the unknown a little more with imagination. And while navigating through a void of incognito future echoing with questions, maybe imagining the beauty of uncertainty and possibility is a piece of gracefulness that art can bring to the table of humanity?
After I have done some general research on the spectrum of elements involved in conservation, the rest of July proceeded into the next stage of learning: field observation. Through first hand experiences, the goal is to understand more deeply into NGO’s role in conservation. I am learning an organization’s way of gaining information on the species that it is studying and the methods it uses to construct conservation strategies specifically for the area of interest.
Liang recently had been collaborating with another Chinese local conservation organization Cloud Mountain (Yun Shan), as their conservation expert counselor.
Cloud Mountain has been working with one critically endangered species called Skywalker hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). As one of the few species named by Chinese, its major habitat is situated in western part of China and some part of Myanmar that shares a boarder with China. Yet due to unstable political situation in Myanmar, the status of this species in Myanmar remains unclear. On Chinese side of the boarder, Tianxing is distributed in 17 fragmented forests, with less than 150 individuals left in total (there is a chance that these Tianxing are the only ones left in the world.) For this field trip, we focused on a county called Ying Jiang, where it shares this boarder with Myanmar.
This species is named Tianxing because it spends most of its life on top of trees, rarely coming down to the ground. Tianxing’s habitat requires a healthy ecosystem and because of that, it is almost impossible for the animal to be raised in captivity. Therefore, the presence of this species in an area is also a symbol for high biodiversity.
For the past many years, Cloud Mountain had been focusing on scientific researches of Tianxing. Around their research base, they familiarized two Tianxing in order to study and observe closely.
Even though some of Tianxing’s families are surviving in the protected forests, where human disturbances are forbidden by law, many of the families are still active in forests around villages, outside the protected zones.
Meanwhile, villagers’ lives are also dependent on those forests. With large overlaps with Tianxing’s habitats, a healthy balance of co-existence between human and animal became a major concern for Cloud Mountain Conservation. For this field trip, Cloud Mountain planned for an early-stage, community-based investigation on villager’s and government’s understanding as well as concerns around their shared forests.
Between July 15th and 19th, we first went to Bao Shan(city) outside of Ying Jiang and met with their government’s deputy director of Preservation branch. Then we drove to Ying Jiang county town, where we also met with Ying Jiang’s deputy director of Preservation (the meeting happened on the very last day). The town acted as a base for us to visit four villages—Jing Po, La Hong, La Ma He and Xiang Bai. These villages are more remotely situated in the mountains, which each required us driving for couple of hours.
In those villages, we first hiked around to check out the habitat and some of Tianxing’s monitoring spots planted by the local forest rangers. (I was very out of shape for those hikes but afterwards, we were usually treated by the villagers with really nice food and very ripened jackfruits.) We then sat around and had conversations with some families all together.
“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
A Sand County Almanac
On July 1st, the first day of my internship, I met with my WCS supervisor Liang in Dali, Yunnan, (an adjacent province to Tibet) where my first part of internship took place. Liang established a plan in the first month, aiming for an immersive understanding of conservation and its systems. In these first 10 days, I was assigned to dive in to books/articles and a presentation, in order to get an overview of wildlife conservation’s broad spectrum. For me, this part of research is constructed on an awareness of ‘Landscape’— its broadness, diversity, inclusiveness and the problems that it’s encountering.
Geographically, Chang Tang is an area covers not only northern part of Tibet, but also western Qinghai Province, and the southern part of Xinjiang. At North, it goes as far as Kunlun mountain range and Kekexili; at East it includes Sanjiangyuan (literally means the source of three rivers, which are Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong.) Water flowing out from this region of Tibetan Plateau goes through China and countries of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Vietnam.
Larger than 270,000 square miles, Chang Tang’s land is like a vessel, encompassing mountains that expand to neighbor countries, glaciers supporting human and wildlife as well as regulating temperature of the area, animals that are migrating or dispersing, and human being, who has been living in some locations for generation after generation.
Tibetan’s lives are deeply interlocked with the wildlife and the environment up at the high lands.
Permafrost [rocks and soil that contains ice] determines distribution and quality of pasture, which determines the well being of herbivores like domestic yak and sheep, wild yak, chiru [Tibetan antelope], pika, Marco Polo sheep and more. These animals then affect carnivores such as wolf, Tibetan brown bear, fox, snow leopards and tigers. Glaciers, lakes, mountains and valleys create important habitats for migration and breeding.
Speaking broadly, pressing problems come from two major perspectives— climate change and human activity. Warmer temperature from climate change, a phenomenon that is responsible globally, creates negative feedback loops on the environment that supports life, affecting both domestic herds as well as wild animals. Melting glacier increases glacier avalanche that destroys animal habitats, meanwhile causing water level to rise up in lakes, flooding pastures and roads. Retreating glacier also leads to water shortages in villages that are dependent on it as water source. Increasingly warmer winter decreases vegetation’s growing season as well, contributing to pasture/meadow’s degradation.
Human activity on the other hand, such as hunting, mining, increasing population, as well as constructions like roads, fences and settlements are obstructions among wildlife habitats and migration routes. Developments that help improving the local living standards are crucial, nonetheless sometimes these developments can negatively affect human just as much as wildlife. Decrease in wild herbivores due to human activities mentioned above, results in carnivores preying on domestic herds, which leads to revenge-driven huntings toward carnivores. And this phenomenon is only one of the many.
Therefore, I think maybe to conserve a species, is to preserve the soil that it’s stepping onto—the same soil that we are also standing on; to vitalize the food that it’s seeking for, and to understand the people whom it’s living with—the people who plays a crucial role in conservation with their behavior and awareness.
Human is an element of an interlocked, interconnected, interactive system that consists of many other elements. While we are affecting non-human entities, the consequences also reflect back to us. The first step to understanding conservation is to discern interconnected elements of the land— from ground to sky, from the disappearing animal to local government politics, from ecology to anthropology.
On top of juggling the tail end of my current projects with VIM and the New York Health Department, I’ve continued to work on my research. I’ve recently been particularly focused on methods of presenting my research as well as putting together the book I’ve been working on, “Cultures of Paranoia and Repair: Art History and Pandemic Disease.” I’m interested in the ways in which I can expand the audience of this subject matter and also publish the work and research so that it is free to the public. In terms of publishing methods, I’ve been spending some time looking into and reaching out to (free to access) places/platforms where I can blog/present the material.
I’m really excited and committed to continuing this project as well as learning about new ways that visual communication can contribute to the public health field. I’m hopeful that my project/research can do important work in de-stigmatizing disease as well as showing the important relationship between visual communication, community action, public health, and the government. I want to inspire creative action as well as acknowledge the importance of good visual communication both inside and outside of government public health outreach programs (particularly in response to sticky problems).
In this blog post I wanted to share some of the images and content I’m working with for my research. It is, of course, still a work in progress. I’ve attached screenshots of some of the intro book spreads below. I’m excited to continue working and expanding upon this project. I know that it will be a passion project for a long time.
A LITTLE HIGHLIGHT OF THE WPA IN REGARDS TO GRAPHIC DESIGN AND PUBLIC HEALTH IN THE U.S.
Part of my research has focused on the rich collection of Work Projects Administration (WPA) public health posters, primarily regarding syphilis. I wanted to share a little bit about this collection, particularly because it shows an extremely artful (and artist controlled) approach to visual communication of disease supported by the government.
Between 1936 and 1943 the WPA created many public education posters, 907 of which have been archived by the Library of Congress. The New Deal program, which included the WPA, was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to put millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Many visual artists found employment through the Federal Art Project.
Notably, the New York poster division was led by Richard Floethe, an internationally recognized German-born industrial designer. Floethe was educated by the Bauhaus aesthetic movement and the styles of this movement are evident in many of the WPA posters. Using mediums of poster production including silkscreen, lithograph, and woodcut, artists sponsored by the New Deal in seventeen U.S. states added an interesting artistic touch to public health and public information campaigns.
On the left, a poster by Erik Hans Krause for Rochester NY WPA Project published between 1936 and 1938.
On the right, a poster from the New York WPA, published between 1930 and 1950.
To conclude my work under the wonderful support of the Maharam Fellowship, I’m sharing part of my (still in progress) book conclusion:
My archive and research proves that public health and graphic design can be influential and beautiful tools, it also shows an inspiring history of community driven action in response to large illness outbreaks. Artists, designers, authors, community organizers, and public health officials must be mindful of their power to advance fear and stigmatization. With proper organization and good intentions, these groups have the power to create positive change in the treatment of illness, in combatting stigmatization, and in advocating for equitable healthcare coverage.
I want to extend my gratitude to Maharam for this gift of time and support, to Kevin Jankowski who has been an amazing supervisor, my incredible mentors Katherine Mastrangelo (at VIM) and Vanessa Smith (at the New York Health Department), and Matthew Landrus (for helping me to begin this research and passion project). I look forward to continuing to expand this project and to future opportunities to contribute in the public health profession.
Design Developments for VIM and the New York Health Department—Raina Wellman, BFA Graphic Design, 2019
In addition to my research project (which I wrote about in my last post) I’ve continued to work with Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) and the New York Health Department on visual communications projects.
Invitation option #1
Invitation option #2
Above are two invitation options I created for the annual Founders & Friends Gathering.
I also created these flyers for the clinic’s free series of diabetes classes.
Through the process of creating these graphic materials (as well as time spent in both offices) I’ve been able to learn a great deal about the ways in which their projects and office operations are structured.
Above: Some early drafts of the NYCMAP book.
Above: Further screenshots of development for the NYCMAP book.
I’ve particularly learned a great deal about the New York City Mural Project (NYCMAP), a project which utilizes mural making to start dialogues, reduce stigma, and support local communities. To make the event happen, the NYC Health Department works with community-based organizations, artists, leaders who live with mental health condition/s, and the community surrounding the mural to discuss and organize around mental health and wellness.
The images above are some draft layouts I created for a project I’ve been working on with the New York Department of Mental Health regarding the NYCMAP event series. We are still actively working to create a booklet that can show the impact of the project and also perhaps help others organize events with similar goals/intentions.
Below are a series of posters options I created for them to use for promoting the paint festivals that they organize. I added a little to their brand guidelines, which include certain color combinations, image use restrictions, and the paint swatches.
Above and below are some images of the posters and fliers in use at a community paint fest earlier this summer:
I also got the chance to visit a few of the murals in person. I helped with a quick clean up at one of the Brooklyn schools where they collaborated on a large-scale mural creation.
There are two photos of the school below:
Working at these two organizations has been extremely rewarding. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to be immersed within these two very different health environments and to learn about the ways in which graphic design can serve them and also push the boundaries of what is expected.
While working at the New York Public Health Department I was also able to talk to a great deal of people involved in communicating and working to solve public health issues. It was really valuable and inspiring to see the ways in which they successfully tackle issues that are weighed down by a lot of stigma, particularly (in this case) drug addiction. It was also interesting to see the ways that they currently use graphic design to communicate messages and the flexibility within those visual/written applications. It made me really curious about what types of visual and written communication are most effective when trying to speak to the general public, particularly about public health issues.
I’ve included some examples of the material produced by the New York Health Department (primarily regarding substance abuse and addiction) below. I was particularly impressed that they have decided to take on substance abuse with education in mind. The ways that they approach the subjects are non-judgmental and tend to be really informative. They also produced a series using personal stories and photographs.
I’ll end this post with one more project I worked on! Some coloring book pages for VIM. They are producing them to raise awareness about their work. It was a fun little project and a great opportunity to keep working with them.
This fellowship has given me the opportunity to expand my research and really immerse myself in the public health field. I’ve learned so much about the ways in which the organizations work; from the content they take on to their complicated hiring processes. I feel like my opportunities to contribute and learn have been really successful and I am so appreciative that the Maharam Fellowship was able to support me in taking on these projects.
Hi! It’s been a bit over a month since my first update. Since then, I have seen so much more of Taiwan!
The more people we meet up with to interview here, the more connections we make to more people and places. We are sometimes receiving more leads than we can keep up with, which is exciting but also exhausting! Many times we are working with people who have tight schedules and long commutes, so there is limited time for setting up a shot and perfecting sound. In the soggy Taiwan heat, it seems cruel to ask our interviewees to turn off their AC units and fans, which presents another hindrance to recording ideal sound. As someone who is not super experienced in documentary work, this is all a very new challenge for me. I am a slow thinker and worker trying to adjust to a very fast-paced mode of operating. However, looking back at the footage and finding the places where people really glow and feel seen through this project makes it so worth it. The more practice I get making footage, the more confident I become, and the better the video turns out.
Currently we have collected hours and hours of footage. Going into this fellowship, Irene and I expected to interview a few people and events which would be edited into a short video. However, as we come to understand how large this tong cao community actually is, we have decided to prioritize gathering footage and interviews during the rest of our time in Taiwan. By the end of December, we will create a short teaser for the project in order to apply for more funding to expand our work.
Working with the Taiwan Tong Cao Association has been an incredibly unique learning experience. Jerry and Kuei Mei have been generous with their time and connections, accompanying us to interviews and sites which often require hours of travel from Taipei. We have been working together to come up with ways to expand the accessibility and knowledge of tong cao. There is so much potential for tong cao as a sustainable material for use in children’s education, product packaging, and DIY culture (very big in Taiwan), to name a few. Kuei Mei’s interdisciplinary approach to building and supporting community is especially inspiring to me. The way she uses her resources, access, and privilege to help people and continue her mission is definitely something I want to apply to my own work. She makes friends wherever she goes, and is always excited to educate new people about our efforts.
This fellowship has given me an experience I could have never imagined in a place I have always dreamed of visiting. To be able to learn about my culture, meet some of my family for the first time, and do work I believe in all at once has been unreal. Scroll down for some stills from our upcoming documentary!
I’m proud to report back to you all that IntegrateNYC’s first Summer Institute was a huge success. Besides the usual struggles with delayed catering, tardy students and listener fatigue, everything went real smooth.
To give a summary of the Institute and everything it incapsulated might be a bit tedious to write and read, but I think it’s worth it to at least give a little attention everything we accomplished in the course of 3 days.
The first day was attended only by half of our student leaders, whom were either returning executive directors or newly promoted executive directors. Everyone was pretty familiar with each other, and it showed in the ease with which everyone stepped into our opening circle. We set up a centerpiece in which every one placed an object of significance, which was set up the two following days as well. I thought it was an interesting ritual to engage in, and a neat way to literally center the space in our personal experiences and individual stories. It was also just a good thing to stare at for people who tend to be a bit visually hungry during a group session (me).
That first day we had a master’s student speak to us about freedom and how it has been conceptualized throughout the history of social justice, and how desegregated, equitable education begets true freedom. The second day, from which point onwards we had a full cast of 24 student leaders attending, we had an accredited professor of American history give an in-depth history lesson revolving around the civil rights movements led by Black Americans. The third day, my supervisor led a “visioning” session, in which large goals and loose plans were laid out for the upcoming academic year (you can see everyone in action in the photo below).
There were lots of team builders, breakfasts and lunches sprinkled in there, but that’s not to downplay their importance: it was in those brief moments that you could see this group of 24 student leaders becoming a unified team.
As I had mentioned I would in an earlier post, I presented a short workshop on artivism, or artistic activism, during the second day of the Institute.
I created the lesson plan and did all the research myself, and in the process of preparing and sharing my research, learned a lot about teaching and communication. An hour-long workshop is not one that I thought would be supremely helpful, given the huge constraint on time, but I think what made a big difference was approaching it like a conversation. I don’t know about you, reader, but I remember the conversations I have far better than the classes I sit through; so I made a handout and had a fun back and forth with five students, and by the end of it I still wasn’t even sure if I was just self-sabotaging by not taking the whole thing more seriously and putting my professor cap on. Thankfully, as is typical for progressive organizations such as INYC, we held a brief reflection on the workshops right after they ended. I was really surprised by the positive response from my students, and humbled by their reassurance that they would take the information with them as they began their work in September.
Through the feedback I got from those student leaders, I have formulated a new understanding of the impact of labor. It’s kind of game changing to think that with even the smallest bit of work I do, it is consumed by people who then carry it with them and let it seep out into what they do, what they say, and how they see. It’s almost funny to think about how naive I was in not holding that as a self-evident truth – I am changed daily by the less than 281 characters I see in a random tweet on Twitter, let alone an illustration or a lesson plan someone pours hour into. It’s simultaneously heartening and sobering. I am now forced to consider what I might not be considering: the possible blindspots in my work, in my life. Then again, art is really just about being painfully considerate, so if I had lost that, I’m glad I found it again.
Here are the two pages of my “Artivism” handout. Compared to my notes, it’s super condense, so please go look up some of the names I dropped and pour some time into researching. Do a deep dive. It’s really worth the effort, and is incredibly interesting and inspiring.
All in all, this Institute was a spectacular way to wrap up this fellowship. Throughout these three months with IntegrateNYC, I was able to explore and expand my capacity to apply creative problem solving to tasks that are not traditionally considered “artistic;” and yet, I feel like more of an artist than ever before. My perspective on what art is has shifted.
For me, art is becoming more about moving throughout the world with intention, and bringing the same ethos to everything you do – then, everything you do is art. You can’t be an artist if you are not engaged in the art of driving safely, the art of caring for others, the art of cleaning the bathroom floor, etc. I was able to engage in the art of everything I did this summer, from grant writing, to ordering food, to running a twitter, to attending rallies. I feel assured that no matter where I land in terms of a career, I’m doing so as an artist. That takes a lot of the pressure off in terms of being a “real artist,” and transfers it to being a real artistic person. That’s less egotistical and far more useful to this world that I love.
A question I’ve been getting a lot now is: “How does it feel to leave a organization after dedicating a whole summer to them?” Well, I wouldn’t entirely know how to answer that. 🙂
Keep up to date with INYC on Instagram and Twitter (@integratenyc) and sign up for their newsletter on their website integratenyc.org. They’ve already accomplished so much – watch them accomplish even more.
Connecting the dots: How Does Communication Improve The Equity of the Urban Food Cycle? | Jisu Yang | BFA Architecture 2021
As there isn’t any collective database for community gardens in Providence, my idea of mapping and revealing the profile of gardens became an essential project for my fellowship period which was originally mentioned in the first blog. So how has that been going?
As I visit community gardens and meet people, the point in the map increases. A single dot is not interesting but if there are many of them, it has a stronger capacity to bring more attraction. The collective entity forms a larger movement of urban agriculture in Providence.
The Parks Department already has an on-going Story Map for public parks on their website. The information I collected will be simply added to the original platform. There was a conversation on how do we include community gardens that are affiliated with non-profit organizations. I encouraged them to be as inclusive as possible since the garden movement has a much stronger impact when we see all the organizations associated in one space. Eventually, the agreement was to have two separate tabs: one is “Providence Parks Community Garden” and the other is “Community Garden Affiliated with NGOs”. The latter will have a link and description to all the organizations that support urban agriculture and how they operate. Some of them have an integral relationship with other organizations and the growth of the city, forming a network of food cycles in Providence.
Click here for the Link to the StoryMap
James Cornell in the “The Agency of Mapping” describes the following:
“Mapping is a fantastic cultural project, creating and building the world as much as measuring and describing it. Long affiliated with the planning and design of cities, landscapes, and buildings, mapping is particularly instrumental in constructing and constructing of lived space. In this active sense, the function of mapping is less to mirror reality than to engender the re-shaping of the worlds in which people live.”
Endorsing Cornell’s point, I believe that the impact of the map is not just reflecting how many gardens exist but imagining how much more these gardens can grow to construct a sustainable food cycle in the city. In other words, it provides opportunities for organizations and the community to form a new relationship.
A community garden in Amos House that opened last year!
Amos House is a social organization that supports people who are often neglected by society. They work with other organizations such as Southside Community Land Trust, Sankofa, and the City of Providence to organize programs and job opportunities. After meeting with Kali who is a program coordinator at Amos House, I had a great chance to meet with Michael who is the chief of the Soup Kitchen at Amos House. He allowed me to realize that food is the ultimate element that completes the cycle of farming.
Amos House Soup Kitchen runs a food recovery program where the organization affords approximately 13,000 people a month for both breakfast and lunch. Since they have a limited budget, the Food Recovery Program essentially allows them to collect wasted food from shops, markets, and farmlands and recover the food by instantly providing to people in need. Although their budget of $10,000 is not enough for providing an extensive amount of meals, the Recovery Program makes this impossible possible. They have a system of visiting all the shops and farms they are affiliated with through foodbank in Cranston. The shops include Wholefood, Hope’s Harvest by Farm Fresh RI, bakery shops in downtown Providence and Gotham Green… etc.
When I showed Michael my project on StoryMap, he was very excited and told me that this is a great platform for him to utilize. Putting into his words, “Your work is essentially connecting dots and this is really important because someone like me can call a garden and ask for any crops that get wasted!! This kind of platform does not exist and as a result, a lot of people do not understand what are existing supports they can get. I know there are lots of community farming that I might have overlooked and it would be great to know where they are so I can get more resources!”
It is very important to have a common connection. Urban agriculture in Providence entails lots of challenges. There is always an issue with soil since the district has industrial remnant and it does not always have enough labor support to sustain the garden in the city. By pin-pointing where things are, the map essentially opens up new opportunities for people to work together and collaborate to construct a sustainable food network by sharing resources.
I wanted to start off my first blog post by thanking the Maharam STEAM Fellowship for the chance to be able to pursue an opportunity I have dreamt of for years. Taiwanese Pith Papermaking was first introduced to me while I was working for Carriage House Paper (a paper educational institution and supplying company). While I was there, I saw that we had a short 10 minute documentary in stock on the topic of Taiwanese Pith Papermaking. As a practicing papermaker of over 5 years, it immediately piqued my interest because I had never heard of such a method. After reaching out to many people from the hand papermaking community, I realized not many people had experience with Pith Paper other than Elaine Koretsky (founder of Carriage House Paper) and Jane Ingram Allen. Unfortunately, I could not ask Ms. Koretsky about what she knew of the subject because her health was declining at the time I knew her. I am grateful for the information she brought back, because if not for her, I would not have even known to seek this rare form of hand papermaking. I was fortunate enough to be able to reach out to Jane Ingram Allen who was able to provide a short article on Pith Paper that she had written. In the United States, Allen and Koretsky are the only two known papermakers who have had direct experience researching paper made from Tetrapanax Papyrifer. Neither have had experience making pith paper. Their previous work gives a great introduction into the art of making pith paper. I want to continue their work and expand upon it in greater detail so that many more can enjoy the rich story of Pith Paper and Flower making. I am grateful to my project partner, Eden Tai, who will help make documenting this story possible.
On August 2nd, I began work right away with the members of the Taiwan TongCao Association: Kuei Mei Liang (Environmental Educator), Jerry Chen (Pith Flower Expert) and Professor Lin ( from PingTung University). We met at the prestigious National Taiwan University to discuss our schedule for the next 4.5 months. Jerry graciously gave me a book that he published on how to make Pith Flowers. All of it is written in Chinese and I have been slowly trying to translate the directions as I practice each flower. Afterward, we explored the herbarium which contained two Tetrapanax plants planted by Professor Kuei Mei (Not Kuei Mei Liang. They happened to have the same name). The plant leaves can get to be about 2ft wide.
The stems of the plant have this powdery substance that supposedly protects the plant from drying out in the heat. Jerry said that once he tried to dry out the stems for a personal project, but could not figure out why it would not dry for several weeks in his drier system. Finally, he removed the plant’s powder from the stems and the next day he achieved the results he wanted. Jerry told me that back in ancient times, people used to take the powder from the plant and pack them in their wounds to prevent further bleeding.
Professor Kuei Mei later showed me how to properly bind plants to paper for scientific documentation. There are very specific rules to sewing these plants in place that I would have never thought of. We tried to fold a Tetrapanax leaf for drying so we could sew it for documentation. The leaves can get to be 2 ft wide so there was no easy way to fold the leaf in a nice arrangement. The stock in which you sew onto is approximately 13″x18″. It won’t be dry until a few months from now.
I also got to see the earliest documentation of Tetrapanax in their archives before the institution was even called National Taiwan University. The University was founded in 1928 during the Japanese ruling and was called Taihoku Imperial University.
What is Pith Paper?
Pith paper is made from the plant: Tetrapanax Papyrifer or Tong Cao 通草 in Chinese. The genus, Tetrapanax is in the family Araliaceae in the major group Angiosperms. The leaves of Tetrapanax have been used in herbal remedies to promote lactation in women and the pith has been also been used as a diuretic. The pith of Tetrapanax was also used to cushion the deceased in coffins. It would absorb the fluids from the body as it was decaying to prevent the bones from rotting. Usually only rich people received this treatment. Apparently, whiter bones symbolizes good luck for the deceased person’s offspring in early Chinese folk tradition.
Pith Paper is frequently misnomered as “rice paper”– a term given by Westerners for any type of Asian styled paper. Some papermakers and farmers in East Asia deem this term quite derogatory and disrespectful to their profession as the paper has nothing to do with rice. It generalizes many unique and highly specialized styles of papermaking. Furthermore, paper must be made from cellulose and rice is a grain, so the terminology is incorrect.
Technically speaking, Pith Paper is not quite a paper either. Paper must be made of randomly woven plant fibers, but Pith is made from a complex cell structure. However, because it functions the same way as paper does, it is still called “paper” for convenience. It is a “Paper unlike Paper”.
In Taiwan currently, there is only one remaining Pith Paper craftsman (Tseng Su-hsiang) and one Pith Flower making expert (Jerry Chen). The time has never been more urgent to research the near defunct craft of Taiwanese pith paper making. Pith paper plays an important role in the cultural history of Taiwan. The usage of pith paper dates back to the Qing Dynasty. It was used for prints, paintings and most notably for making beautifully crafted artificial flowers used in ceremonies, cultural celebrations and fashionable hair accessories. Because Pith paper was so abundant during that time, artisans who painted on it often used it for practice before painting on more expensive papers or canvases (more on this in a later blog post, I am still translating the textbook that elaborates on this matter). The local pith industry was encouraged by Japanese commercial interest and reached its peak around 1910 during the Japanese occupation. During this time, pith paper was exported in large quantities from Taiwan and was an important source of national revenue. The production of pith paper thrived in Taiwan until the 1980s when plastic was being more commonly used as a cheap, durable and disposable material. After plastic’s rise to material predominance, these traditional flowers were no longer made from pith paper. Thus, in 1993, the use of plastic forced remaining pith paper factories in Taiwan to migrate to mainland China where there was a better chance for economic survival. Since then, even many of the factories that have moved have closed down. As the demand for Tetrapanax diminished, farmers switched their crops to grow produce instead. Kuei Mei Liang took me to Yang Ming Shan (Yang Ming Mountain) where Tetrapanax was once abundant. Now, most of it has been chopped down to make room for other crops. We found a couple Tetrapanax plants in the back of a restaurant we went to at the bottom of the mountain. Kuei Mei told me that she remembered this whole valley being full of Tetrapanax over 30 years ago. There were still some rice patties in the mountains during that time but they did not interfere with the Tetrapanax crops. After the government turned Yang Ming Shan into a national park in the 1980s, most of the rice patties eventually turned into Calla Lily Farms for tourists.
In Kuei Mei’s own attempts to bring back more Tetrapanax to the mountain, she planted seven plants along a trail during a residency in 2017 sponsored by the government. Currently, there are only two left from what she first planted. She suspects that perhaps she didn’t plant them properly or that tourists may have accidentally damaged them. We still went to go see the Tetrapanax plants that remained however. I really admired Kuei Mei’s dedication to the plant. Kuei Mei is retired now, but now she volunteers a lot of her time to promoting the education of pith paper. When she was 65, she went back to graduate school to write her dissertation on Tetrapanax.
How is Pith Paper made?
Pith paper is produced by chopping the stalk of the plant into pieces, then pushing out the pith of the Tetrapanax. The pith is then pared spirally to form long narrow sheets. The end result is a thin, delicate, and translucent paper.
Sometime next month, we will be meeting with the Pith Paper master who will demonstrate Pith Papermaking for us. While we are there, we will provide photo and video documentation.
Lack of Tools Becomes Major Issue
What we recently discovered is that one main reason it has been difficult to carry on the tradition of Pith Papermaking is that there has been an extreme lack of tools since factories closed down in the 1990s. I was informed that some factories just threw all their tools away once there was no more need for production. There are no knife makers left in Taiwan who can make the exact tool needed. As a result, the remaining Pith Paper maker in Taiwan will not teach anyone who does not have their own tools for fear of having a student accidentally break theirs. Jerry Chen, Pith Flower expert, has tried to recreate the knife several times but has been unsuccessful so far. He informed me that the papermaker would not let him measure her knife (maybe for fear that the measuring tools would knick her knife). Jerry informed me that the only craftsman who knows how to handle her knife lives in the Guang Dong area in China. Therefore, it is extremely inconvenient to get the knife repaired.
Pith Flower Making
I attended my first Pith Flower making class on August 5th. It has been an incredible experience to work with Jerry. He was very welcoming and happy to share his knowledge. I felt so honored to be in his presence. On first impression, I could tell he was genuinely passionate about what he was doing. It was funny because Jerry was a Furniture Designer turned Pith Flower maker. Which is honestly what I think I might become (for those of you reading who don’t know already, I just graduated RISD from the Furniture Department).
Here are some examples of his work on display at NTU:
On the first day, we learned the most simple type of flowers: Morning Glories and Gardenias.
The pith of Tetrapanax is an incredible material. You must dampen the paper in order to manipulate it, otherwise it is quite brittle when dry and will easily break. It swells and come alive when you spray water on it. When I was first making the Morning Glories, I pinched and squeezed the paper until it looked like the flower was closed. Then I sprayed it with water and slowly grew to open. I was really amazed. I might make it again and ask Eden to help me film this phenomenon
We used molds to make the leaves. Unfortunately the person who made Jerry’s mold no longer makes them anymore, but fortunately I have the skills to learn how to remake them (my senior thesis required a lot of mold making and bronze casting)! That may be an endeavor for later during this project.
The next day, I wanted to make sure that I could remember everything I learned so I tried both flowers again. These were the results:
On August 12th, I took a class with Eden after she arrived! We learned how to make Jasmine Flowers and Cherry Blossoms. Eden wanted to try making some flowers before she started filming to get a better sense of the craft.
On August 19th, I learned how to make roses and Cosmos. Eden did her first day of filming. The shots looked great! I was glad she could take over photo documentation because my phone camera is very blurry! Now that she is here, our photos will look more professional. Yay!
Although the Cosmos looked the most simple, I actually thought they were the hardest to make. For some of the previous flowers, if you made a mistake, it was a bit easier to hide them underneath other petals. However, with the Cosmo, your mistakes were in plain site.
Here is some of Eden’s beautiful photos of my flowers from yesterday:
Tomorrow, Eden and I will be heading to Taoyuan City to go to Jerry’s office. We will be learning how to properly dye Pith paper and how to arrange the flowers we have made in vases. Eden will also film Jerry’s process and we will interview him for the documentary. Next Monday, we will spend the entire day learning how to make Peonies (my favorite flower!!) Stay tuned!