It feels strange to attempt to complete a video when there is still so much to learn about tong cao and the revival effort led by the Taiwan Tong Cao Association. However, it is important to use this remaining time to produce material for both the association and Irene to use for submissions to future funding!
In addition to preparing the video for output, Irene and I will be giving lectures at the Taiwan Nature Trail Society on November 21st. Our advisor, Kuei Mei, organized this opportunity for us. Irene will talk about papermaking and lead a demo on shifu (paper thread), and I will present some of my work from my degree project and the Maharam Fellowship period. Making this lecture has encouraged a lot of reflection on how my thesis work (which is conceptually inspired by the history and uses of artificial flowers) connects to my current experience recording the tradition of pith flower-making. This will be my first artist talk outside of a school setting, so I am looking forward to trying something new.
Our most recent trip out of Taipei was a couple days ago, to a town called Xiluo in Yunlin County. We were scheduled to meet an artist who has previously worked with tong cao. As we had to catch a bus back to Taipei the same night, the interview was brief, but very worth it! I continue to be amazed at Kuei Mei’s talent for and commitment to connecting people.
During our next trip out of Taipei, we will go to Hsinchu to visit our friend Bawdu, a Hua Yuan member who is the leader in reviving tong cao cultivation practices in his village. Last time we visited his farm plot, the plants were not yet flowering, but this time we will get to see the tong cao in bloom. He explained to us that because tong cao flowers during the colder months in Taiwan, it is a good resource for pollinators who typically have greater access to flowers in the springtime. Fingers crossed that we will get to see some bees!
Until then, I will continue my daily search for cafes with power outlets and keep working on post-production for this video~
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.