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Bridging a Cultural Divide With Art

By Xun (Michael) Chi

Xun (Michael) Chi
Xun (Michael) Chi

Sometimes, a person can stand in the present, reflect on what has passed and discover that they have come full circle. This happened to me when I presented the keynote speech this summer at the 2015 Across the Divide conference at Beijing Normal University and six other top universities throughout China, including Beijing University and China Central Academy of Fine Arts. In my presentation and essay, “Visual Juxtaposition Design,” I spoke about teaching creativity creatively.

The essay and presentation both arose from a series of class projects I developed to inspire my Design and Digital Media students at Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD) to solve visual problems imaginatively. One project in particular was inspired by the format of Chinese duìlián, a couplet in traditional Chinese poetry.

In China, individuals and families traditionally compose duìlián and, in honor of the change of seasons, hang them by their doors during the spring. The two lines of the couplet have a one-to-one correspondence in metrical length and their characters also share properties.

In class, I tasked my students with pairing two images in such a novel juxtaposition that they would generate a new, often fun and ironic, meaning.

My full circle moment came while I was standing before the audience at Beijing Normal University. There I was, sharing lessons I had learned from using duìlián to teach my American students with the compatriots of my birthplace. For me, personally and professionally, this was a highpoint.

As I presented my LCAD students’ work during my keynote and at the exhibition mounted in conjunction with the Across the Divide conference, the audience and onlookers responded with keen attention, humor and understanding. I saw for myself that great art and design has the power to bridge linguistic, political and cultural gaps.

I could not have experienced this epiphany without the culture of inclusivity the LCAD fosters in its curriculum, its faculty and its student body. To be a member of the LCAD community is to engage in cross-cultural dialogues and practices that are, at once, challenging and rewarding.

Back in 2006, when I completed my MFA in visual communication design from Purdue University, I was seeking out teaching positions at universities across the United States. Although it was quite apparent at the time that new fields of digital design were emerging quickly, few of the nation’s most prominent programs emphasized instruction in these groundbreaking fields to the degree that LCAD did. Then, I met Catharin Eure, now chair of LCAD’s BFA program in Design and Digital Media. Catharin and her students at LCAD were already immersed in the most cutting-edge technologies and applications available to designers. I knew immediately that I wanted to teach at LCAD. That I have been able to do this for the past eight years as full-time faculty and to witness American students breathe new life into ancient traditions from my Chinese upbringing is the stuff of dreams. But I shouldn’t be surprised, as fulfilling dreams is precisely what LCAD specializes in.

Another dream I have is that every member of the Laguna Beach community will be aware of and take pride in LCAD, our hometown college with a nearly 55-year legacy that is gaining an international reputation as a world-class college of art and design. Because not only are LCAD students creating great art and design, they also are reaching across cultures to collaborate and to communicate. They are sharing and celebrating the human experience. I could not be more thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this boundless circle of teaching and learning creatively.

 

The author is an associate professor of visual communication at LCAD. His photography has been featured in various publications including Juxtapoz magazine, Harper’s Bazaar China, Esquire China and more. His photography website is www.chixun.net

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