ASHLEY SILVER AND JAMES FLETCHER were my first contacts with TGS, and I was immediately struck by how they both balanced a high degree of professionalism with being very relaxed and easy going.
From the moment I sat down, I didn’t feel the usual scrutiny and pressure of a job interview. I felt like these people were genuinely interested in who we were, the expats in China, and what we could offer to enrich the experience of the students who were slated to arrive in the country within six weeks.
We discussed a lot about education and language training that morning, but somehow we got onto the topic of art. It came out that I had an art studio that sat on the cusp of the Beijing art world. Through conversation, the four of us—Ashley, James, Hannah Barraclough, my friend and their Beijing coordinator, and I—started to develop this idea of the students using Chinese as a practical tool for getting art supplies and making their own projects.
We left the conversation feeling energized, and all of us felt that the idea we had dreamed up could be a learning experience for all involved, not just the students. I was delighted to receive an email later in the month from Ashley. They were interested in going through with the project. After hammering out some details, we set a date and decided to really do it.
I felt admittedly very nervous about meeting the students. When they all poured off the bus mid day on the first Saturday, they walked with an air of confidence that was unmatched by the majority of the Chinese students I’d taught for the past five years. These were young globetrotters. These were people who had from an early age been exposed to different places, cultures and people and who had taken those experiences of the other and used them to further their understanding of themselves. The result was already palpable.
After exploring 798 with Hannah and Karla —the exceptional day-to-day leader, logistics organizer and all-around top-notch supervisor —we reconvened back at my studio for a conversation about the Beijing art world. The students showed some interest, but I could see that for many of them, the piles of junk around my studio that were already transforming in their heads into art projects had a hands-on appeal that no level of conversation could achieve.
As the conversation wrapped up, there seemed to be half-a-second of pause; when the students stared in disbelief at the masses of materials strewn around the studio. Many of them actually said aloud, “Wait, so we can use whatever we want from this place?”
The only answer I could think of was “of course,” after which the floodgates burst open. The students scattered everywhere, picking up pieces of raw materials and holding them upside down and turning them around, moving their heads about, and imagining what they could be when combined with what they already held in their hands and their minds. Within ten minutes some students were literally wearing the refuse, while others gathered bits and pieces into piles like birds building nests for their young.
The scene resembled a combination of an archaeological dig and that moment when Filene’s Basement opens the doors for their wedding dress sale. If any ice remained to be broken between myself and the students, it was smashed by turning them loose on the studio.
After a good half-hour of rummaging, the students felt satisfied that they either had what they needed or they knew what they needed, and so we set off for the materials market.
At the market, some students seemed very confident communicating in Chinese, supplemented by hand gestures, and others seemed more keen to stick to me and Hannah for translations to be sure that they got exactly what they wanted. After the market, we returned to the studio to drop off our supplies and agreed to meet the next day.
The following day they got to work immediately. Some wanted to use metal-cutting tools, wood saws, angle grinders, the welder and a drill press that we have mounted on a metal table. These tools are dangerous and I felt like I finally, after more than ten years, sympathized with my high school welding teacher when he shrieked at us about safety and wanted to control every machine to be sure that nobody got hurt. But unlike the sculpture classes I attended as a kid, we had five or six adults on the scene, all of which were looking out for the well-being of the students.
At first I found myself training each student on the same machine over and over, which worked for about half an hour, but after a while the number of student inquiries and their complexity rose to a point where I could no longer micro-manage the tool use.
It seemed that the only logical thing to do was to delegate to the students I’d already trained the responsibility of teaching safety to the others. This required me to trust a group of people whom I’d only met a day before, but somehow they made it clear that they were used to working together and helping each other, and so, without further hesitation, I started telling students to ask their trained peers how to use the machines, all the while keeping an eye on the group to be sure that everybody was out of danger.
The result was staggering. Not only was the power of safety rippling through the entire group, but the previously individualistic attitude about learning and creating was replaced by a level of tenderness which at once made me grin and nearly well-up.
They wanted the other students to avoid touching the hot welds and the sharp metal not because they were worried about blame, or breaking the rules, or some other outside intangible force coming down on them; instead, they were clear and concise with their instructions because they genuinely cared for each other and would have hated seeing their classmates and friends get injured.
Looking around the room, time and again I could see the same patterns of students looking out for each other, and I realized that I didn’t have six adults on my team ensuring that the exercise was done well. We had 21 people who were all working together to make sure that nobody got hurt and collaborating so everyone made a project that they enjoyed and could be proud of.
Going home, I felt more energized about art than I had for months. It seems too often that projects and experiences with art err on the side of self-indulgence and self-satisfaction. The students reinforced the lesson that making art and making projects does not have to be the shameless promotion of the self and the talents that we long for other people to recognize and celebrate.
The experience can be about community and shared experience and that by making things together and watching out for each other, we end up with a journey and a product that is better than what we could have made on our own.