Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Smooth as Silk



This article about yours truly recently appeared in the Feb issue of Taipei's Centered magazine.

Here's the complete article written by Lee Mooney.

Smooth As Silk

Should he require quick inspiration from his surroundings, local artist Tim Budden need only look out his studio window, from which he enjoys an enviable view of Taipei 101. Often veiled in mist, the city’s most famous landmark, not surprisingly, has become prominent among the local motifs that Budden has assimilated into his silk cuts, his unique variation of traditional Chinese paper cutting. What is surprising is that it took so many years for the long-time resident to find the local link he needed to resurrect the artistic pursuits that he had, more or less, neglected since arriving in Taiwan in 1989.

“[Originally] I wasn’t interested in Chinese art at all,” Budden says, from his studio in the East Taipei high rise he shares with his wife Christine and son Adam. “It’s very constricted, rigid and male. I don’t like male-dominated work. You look at any classical Chinese artist, there’s always the classic image of the scholar. He’s male and he’s got a beard. He produces paintings and he has a lot of students – all male – and in order to become an artist, they have to copy everything he does.”

Artistic failure was something Budden had never experienced in his native Wales or in his early career in London... After graduating in 1986 with an MA in Fine Arts from the University of Glamorgan (Wales), Budden embarked on a promising career in the UK, working for theater companies as a sculptor, scene artist, and designer, while at the same time pursuing his ambition to be a cartoonist. Roger Sabin, in his book A History of Comic Art, lauded Budden as a ‘rising star’ in recognition of a Gothic comic character and series the young artist had created. Other works by Budden were also exhibited in group shows in the UK and Europe.

Succumbing to youthful wanderlust, Budden arrived in Taiwan to visit his parents, who were living here as expatriates. His parents have long since returned to the UK. Budden’s “visit” continues, but his artistic pursuits strayed soon after arriving. “When I arrived in Taiwan, there was nothing in this culture for my art to connect with,” he recalls. Nevertheless, his new home and its “foreignness” intrigued him enough so that he decided to stay. Like many native English speakers in Taiwan, Budden turned to language teaching and eventually writing, as the author of the popular children’s textbook series, Say It. Despite this success, the connection he sought for his art remained elusive. ‘There was a time when wood block prints interested me and I did try to do some prints of [local Chinese] gods and I would change things a little bit, incorporating my own imagery but still nothing clicked,” Budden recalls. At last, in 2004, the link he’d been searching for arrived when he discovered a traditional art form that flourished mostly in the small villages of China.

Paper cutting has existed in China for thousands of years and by the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) had already become a popular art form, especially for Chinese New Year celebrations. While professional paper cutters, often employed in large workshops, tend to be male, paper cutting in China’s rural countryside was traditionally a female art form. Ironically, it was an interest in what motivated these women that proved pivotal in Budden’s blossoming interest. He explains, “Paper cutting is classified as folk art. It’s considered very low art. It’s used for decorating windows, for Chinese New Year, for weddings, for symbols of spring. I just don’t find the work of the masters interesting because it’s formalized and built on craft and skill, whereas in the paper cutting I’m interested in, these, primarily, ladies coming at the art from the point of view that they have a story to tell.”

A gift of silk from a friend and a request that he create something out of it not only reinvigorated his newfound passion for his art but took it into a completely new direction – elemental silk cuts. “What I like about the silk,” Budden explains, “is its quality, its iridescent sheen, and its traditional phoenix pattern with its movement, vibrancy, and energy. Silk is also very strong. One of the problems with paper is that it disintegrates very easily,” he adds. Silk, because of its durability, is often used in the mounting of Chinese scroll paintings. Only such a strong material would hold up to the constant rolling and unrolling of the scrolls.

Budden typically spends about 30 hours on a silk cutting piece. After selecting the silk from a local shop, he draws a section of the entire pattern on tracing paper. Then, using colored pencils, he draws the entire design on silk. Since he usually does several versions of the same piece, underneath the top layer of silk are other pieces of varying colors. “The more colors you have, the more difficult,” he says of the process that then involves the painstaking step of cutting the design into pieces with a sharp scalpel, which are then mounted onto board prior to framing. To his knowledge, silk has never before been used in the traditional art of paper cutting.

During his initial foray into silk cutting, manic outbursts of creative energy and output led Budden to an important realization: he’d have to think more about the process so that images wouldn’t fall to pieces from careless design. “When these non-masters [ladies from China’s rural countryside] cut the paper, they have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t fall to pieces. They have to add these links, so there is a lot of engineering involved. They have to think about how to tie the whole image together …” A cursory glance at some of Budden’s work might lead one to believe that he has an obsession with noodles or steam, but the careful design of these are in fact integral to holding the entire image intact. Likewise, in another piece, only a careful observation and knowledge of the process reveals that a seemingly insignificant twig in fact serves the crucial function of holding the piece together.

As he’s grown more comfortable working with silk cuts, Budden has begun to incorporate more familiar imagery. “There is certain imagery that goes through all my work – clouds, ether, steam – have been in my work since my days in the UK,” he says. Clouds, revealing his roots as a cartoonist, have been especially prominent. “Clouds feed us with water but they’re also a place of mystery, of fog and mist and the way they move. They’re very organic. The imagery of the clouds in my work now is more related to the cloud imagery in traditional Chinese paintings. Eastern art becomes highly stylized, just as cartoons become very stylized images of people and things. This kind of stylization produces a new kind of imagery and energy.”

Though he has never spent time in rural China and is unfamiliar with the cultural references that inspired the decorative paper cuts, Budden has discovered, through reading and pouring over countless pictures, narrative themes that reflect what he wishes to bring out in his own art. “Narrative is important to me because I used to be a cartoonist. In my silk cuts, I’m also telling stories. I could see that there was a narrative in the pictures I saw, even though I didn’t know what the story was, and I could allow my own ideas to flow and give my work meaning. That’s what I like about art, to be able to approach it with your own ideas, even if you don’t share a common background with the artist.”

A common theme in the traditional paper cuts and paintings of China is the idealized innocence of childhood and domestic life. This is also a theme that runs through much of Budden’s work. “At the moment, I’m using the image of the child, which comes from the old Chinese paintings. In these pictures, there are 100 children and they’re all playing. The idea was that people would have these pictures in their house because [the images] represented babies and healthiness. All the kids in the picture are very cherubic, round, bouncy, and cuddly. I like the idea of this fantasy, of this innocent, cherubic child.” Even in communist China, the fantasy of cherubic innocence prevailed in propaganda posters of young boys in astronaut outfits.

Budden’s son Adam has influenced much of his father’s work that incorporates this theme of idealized innocence, most notably in Dancing Boys, a celebration of youthful male insouciance, described in one review as “child-like creatures full of sinuous anarchic energy that reaches every corner of their bodies. Veins, muscle and bone are hinted at – all beautifully patterned and flowing – pulsing with a vibrant energy as they experience the world around them.”

While his son Adam was the model for the image in Dancing Boys, it is the artist’s embrace of the youthful narrative theme that propels the spirit of the work. “I’ve used the image of the child in my work a lot,” he says. “Taoist thought is that childhood represents the ideal state because the child approaches everything very innocently. And the reason I use these dancing, happy-go-lucky, slightly naughty children is because they absorb what’s around them and they seem untouched by that and they can see it in an innocent light.” Though Budden is quick to embrace any ideology that upsets the order of a strict hierarchical or patriarchal system, he eschews politics in his work at present. This is consistent with the spirit of innocence he conveys in Dancing Boys. “I like that state of innocence. I think that’s partly the way I’ve tried to stay myself in Taipei, by not getting too involved in the language, in politics.”

Being an expat himself, Budden is especially sensitive to how the local surroundings provide symbols for the narratives in the lives of other foreigners who have called Taipei home. Such people often want something more meaningful than a photo to symbolize their experience here and seek Budden’s assistance in weaving a silk cut narrative out of the myriad impressions that color their stories. Says Budden, “I found that there was a real need for people to have something sight-specific about their lives. Through interviews, I get some ideas of what kind of people they are, the kind of things that interest them, of what they do here, or what kind of family they have. All the symbols I use mean something but only the people [who are interviewed for the commission] may know what they mean.” A look at several of his commissions reveals images that symbolize a child born in the Year of the Monkey; another interested in soccer; a Hello Kitty fan; places of employment; scooters; shapes of faces; domestic symbols; the Tree of Life; and, of course, local landmarks such as Taipei 101. “So often I’ve chosen the image of 101 because it’s such a vast thing. And it has a very distinctive shape. It has a tree, bamboo-like quality. So often in my commissions, it’s looming, growing out of the ground, twisting over other parts of the picture. Sitting here [in his studio] you realize that the top of 101 is in a different climate zone. It gets very influenced by the hills behind it. It’s often enveloped in clouds and you can really see them moving around it, shifting, being blown around. That kind of energy and movement inspire me.”

An environment that in the past was bereft of artistic inspiration for Budden now at least provides him with enough stimulation to add local color to the silk cut narratives he creates for his clients. With his art again at the center of his life, he enjoys a contentment that once seemed almost unattainable. Owing, perhaps, to his British reserve, he tempers his enthusiasm with some sobering realizations. “Now the worrying thing is that I don’t fit a stereotype. I’m the wrong age. I’ve just started trying to produce my art. I’m in my 40s. I’m the wrong race. Now the big thing is the Chinese market. If you’re a mainland Chinese artist, you get 20 extra points. But if you’re a British artist who’s living in Taiwan, and is 46, you lose points. Also I’m doing something that is a very female art form and I have very little in common with the kind of people who traditionally produce this kind of work.”

Each silk cut Budden produces is testament that he has indeed found the cultural links that are necessary for him to create the art he wants in Taiwan. Likewise, he enjoys a stable and nurturing family life. His wife Christine has fully supported and encouraged him in his artistic pursuits. Despite the cross-cultural assimilation into his artwork and his fondness for the people of Taiwan, it would be inaccurate to say that he has totally embraced the local culture. “Part of the reason I’ve never really learned [Mandarin] is because I need to keep a distance. I think it is, partly, because I realize I am of another place. There are many things here that I don’t need or want to understand because I need to keep that distance. It’s enabled me to stay outside of it and look at things with different eyes. Maybe as an artist that’s what I need to do - view things in a different way.”

Any lingering cultural conflict that Budden may still experience now fuels rather than frustrates his art work. As he says about the images that are prominent in his silk cuts, “Organic forms are very much a part of my work … because they refer to an energy that’s within all of us. We’re in a constant state of turmoil, I think, and it’s a positive energy. It’s how you use that energy. To try and capture that energy in a positive way is how the whole art form for me evolved.”

1 comment:

Mike Hemsley said...

Tim, how rotationallishly circlefying life is! I remember watching you teach English to a group of children Adam's age one Saturday morning in November '89. One phrase from your lesson has stuck in my mind ever since; it was "High! High in the sky!" And the gleefaced children that day were flying with you! I reckon you've always been doing it; are you sure you really 'went away'?
Mike H