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Finishing School Orientation (Extended): Brenda Zhang

A paper cut by Brenda Zhang

Throughout the run of The Taming of the Shrew, a dynamic lineup of special events will offer everyone a chance to live in the world of the production. Designed to look like the open-air markets of Padua and curated to appeal to savvy, contemporary customers, the Piazza d’Amore will host unique shopping, show-related discussions, special performances and culinary events. At the same time, Padua Finishing School will offer artistic workshops that encourage life-long learners to explore new things. The workshops feature some of the best craftspeople, designers and makers in the area, not only allowing our patrons to meet local artists but also to get their hands dirty and make art of their own.

To help orient you in this brand new world of commerce, creativity and community thriving in the Harman lobbies, we want to give you the chance to meet just a few of the workshop leaders at Padua Finishing School. Read on to go in-depth with artist Brenda Zhang.

 Brenda Zhang, Make-and-Take: Paper Cut-Outs

Artist, Designer and Educator based in Philadelphia, PA
Finishing School Workshop: Tuesday, June 7

What kinds of art do you create?

I am a painter, sculptor, installation artist, furniture designer, architectural designer, and teacher. The workshop I am teaching at STC is paper-cutting, a craft with international roots, traditionally female practitioners and a strong presence in non-Western weddings. As a female-identified Chinese-American artist, paper-cutting is an intersection of culture and gender, from the bright red paper cuts I grew up with in windows and in Chinese weddings, representing good fortune, to the Western tradition of silhouettes, and, later, modernist and post-modernist collages and abstractions.

 Is there a particular time period, artist or region that inspires your work?

I have most recently been inspired by Henri Matisse’s later work in paper cuts and Pablo Picasso’s political paintings. I love the artists of the last century (Cy Twombly, Lynda Benglis, Richard Serra, Yayoi Kusama). But I also love the artist-artisans of all cultures who worked in historical periods in which art was fully embedded in society and was not forced or expected to exist in a vacuum. I want art objects to be lived with.

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What do you wish for people to learn in your workshops?

The questions that drive my art practice are about what we count as natural, what we count as built, and what it means to us that we count as both. While my work will at times focus more directly on subjects as diverse as gender and sexuality, sociopolitical issues around climate, or the secret lives of domestic objects, the common thread is always about the boundaries we imagine and create (physical, emotional, political, etc.). I wish for people in the workshop to take away a moment in which they can zoom out and evaluate some of those boundaries and consider the roots, utility, and impacts of those boundaries.

How do you think your work relates to STC’s production of The Taming of the Shrew?

My work, particularly in painting, has been about reclamation of the female nude. My training as a painter has been through Western schools of art, and I specifically use my identity as female to subvert ideas of the female nude, using, for example, self-pleasure as an action to give a painted female subject sexual agency even as she exists as an object. It is exciting for me, then, to be involved with a production of The Taming of the Shrew, and to be thinking about how the character of Katherina is shaped by external forces toward a particular end.

Paper cuts are traditionally representations of wishes (harvest, luck, health, success, etc.), and thus feature largely in Chinese weddings. Many of the desires represented at these weddings reproduce and illustrate patriarchal expectations for women (fertility, domesticity), expectations that ultimately are given full expression in The Taming of the Shrew.

 What’s your origin story as an artist?

My practice is forged from art, design, and education. I was born in the United States as a child of Chinese emigrants, and so the practice of translation (cultural, linguistic and later sociopolitical, philosophical, ethical, even ecological) is ingrained in my way of being.

I think this is why I learned visual language IMG_6323before any other, and I early on began to draw and paint. In college, my painting work expanded and evolved quickly into the three dimensions of sculpture and then jumped off the pedestal into installation. Concurrently, I began to pursue design as a strategy for working within complex systems from a foundation of social justice. This emerged from my experiences identifying with and being a part of complex systems and spaces spanning continents and oceans, and it became furniture and architectural work. Throughout, I have taught environmental studies, design process, leadership and community-organizing, and outdoors skills at high school and college levels in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Providence, Rhode Island and Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Throughout each, I investigate questions of natural and built, how we draw the lines between them, and what happens to ourselves when those lines are drawn. Growing up bilingual and bicultural taught me that none of these lines are in stone and all of them are up for grabs.

 If you really taught at a finishing school, what class or lesson would you teach young girls?

I have no experience in finishing schools to date, but I imagine I might not last very long as a teacher in one. My work as a teacher has been entirely around the idea that all students (but particularly young girls) in all subjects should question everything and everyone.

Make a metaphor: how is your work symbolic of a marriage or union?

I see my work in any medium as a collaboration between myself and the material(s). Any material (paper, certainly!) has physical qualities and thus strengths and limitations. Like any marriage or union, the artistic process is about giving of yourself, and perhaps more importantly, about making the time and space to understand and respond to your partner.

 

Sign up for Brenda’s workshop at http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/events/paper-cut-outs/

Remember, space is limited and early registration is required. 

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