Paul teaching students in Chongqing, China 2000
Is Art Really a Visual Language? From Paul's experience teaching in China
In 2000 I was invited to be a visiting guest professor of art in Chongqing, China and was able to teach oil painting classes to Chinese students in Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in that Chinese city. As an artist and teacher I had always declared that art was a visual language, and I suppose I believed that to be true, however, I never fully understood the reality of it until I was able to teach students whose verbal language I understood very little. The art students in China had all studied English but most did not have a speaking knowledge of English, and of course when I went there to teach, I understood very little Chinese. I was given a Chinese interpreter to assist me in my class; however, she was available in the morning formal class only so when I went back to the painting lab in the afternoon, I was entirely on my own to communicate with the students.
To my surprise, I found that it was not that difficult to communicate with the students what I wanted them to do in their paintings. I would often just do a demonstration on paper or pick up a brush and mix some color, then put a few strokes on the canvas to show the student how to correct or improve their work. It soon became very clear to me and to my students that we had a “visual language” we both understood, and verbal language was not that necessary in order for us to communicate about the art. Of course, at the beginning of a project I had the interpreter in the class so I could give a short lecture or introduction, but after that we could communicate “visually” with pencil or brush and sometimes with gestures to understand each other.
It was through this experience of teaching in a foreign country and with students who did not understand my verbal language that I learned art is even more of a visual language than I had fully understood before. When I came back to America to teach English speaking students, I could say from true experience that art really is a visual language, and with the conviction that it is not just a conventional way of describing art, but that I had truly experienced it in a practical and actual way.
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