Artjam mastermind found colourful way to banish the blues

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2009, 12:00am


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Artjamming was the result of what you might call a mini-breakdown and arguably it's been the best change in my life. My education in Toronto, Canada, in the 1970s and '80s also played a part because it has enabled me to know myself better and to know how to respond in such a situation.

In fact I'd been in a funk for about six months after coming to Hong Kong in the early 1990s and studying for my Hong Kong architect's exams. I'd help colleagues pass them but I'd yet to do so myself and was feeling under pressure about it.

One day I was standing at a bus stop for about half an hour and the buses were trundling by. Suddenly, I was feeling this kind of happiness despite the depression because I was asking myself why I wasn't doing something about it. It then occurred to me there was no reason for me not to do what I wanted.

My gut feeling said it should be something creative, as I didn't feel challenged that way in my job. S some friends and I started a studio hosting art exhibitions.

People would come in and wouldn't even say hello, despite it not being a high-end space, and that really bothered me. I hated people looking at art in an almost hyper-intellectual way.

I'd bought canvasses, paints and brushes to have a go at painting at home, but the confidence I had as a kid had evaporated and I put them back in the closet. But one day back in 2000, I pulled them out and on a Saturday we hosted the first artjam, spreading the word among friends.

Looking back, art was definitely important for me at school and, in fact, going to art college had been my first choice but my father didn't like the idea.

We'd moved to Canada from Taiwan to escape recession when I was three. Dad was a chemical engineer but he literally did all the cliched 'immigrant jobs' , such as electrical work and food.

The hardest thing was my Grade One spelling test, which I did badly in. My parents hadn't gone through any spellings with me but by the end of that year English wasn't a problem. There was television to learn from, after all. I remember two teachers in particular from my schooldays - one who was wonderful and the other who wasn't.

The latter one would write everything on the board before class and we'd have to copy it down. It was so uninspired.

The other, Mr Fitzgibbon, had a totally different approach. Instead of having all the students looking to the front of the class, we faced one another, which forced us to engage.

Mr Fitzgibbon taught history and was very animated. He was almost fatherly, not particularly sexy, and would sit on the desk and show us slides.

In fact history wasn't my favourite subject but he made me love it. He didn't teach chronologically but would link certain key events, such as Abraham Lincoln's assassination, to more contemporary ones such as John F. Kennedy's murder, thereby making it more relevant.

I also liked the way he laid out ideas instead of presenting facts.

My science teachers were also memorable, as they were charmers and comedians. They must've spent hours trying outdo one another with jokes such as 'What do you call an Irishman who bounces off the wall? - Rick O'Shea'. Or 'What's 288? - It's too gross'.

Through school, I came to realise I processed information visually and remember things well. However, if I don't understand something I won't remember it.

I also didn't like repetitive things while study areas such as projects were an enjoyable challenge. In fact, when I had nothing to do at home, I'd set myself little projects and sometimes with friends.

I was also good at getting things done but would leave it to the last minute. The stress of the deadline helped my clarity of thought.

Artjamming has been about having the courage of my convictions. At first I thought it would be a little structured: we'd talk about it, do it and then have a little postmortem. But I ditched that because it seemed too formal and like a workshop. On that first night, I was surprised when people asked within the first hour about doing it again.

One friend had told me: 'I can't even talk about art, never mind do it.' The irony was, half way through the evening, even he was yakking about colour. He felt liberated.

It piques my interest that people have mini-revelations at artjam and it can affect their lives. Let's face it, education systems don't always enable you to develop your own style. It's not laid down in the curriculum.

Our aim is to make people feel comfortable about a little piece of artwork that they did on their own. And it's not meant to be difficult.

But it's probably true that artjamming does not have the effect it aims to have - because everyone needs a little fear and doubt.

We've certainly be come to be fond of people coming in with worries and leaving feeling lighter. I have a pet theory about today's culture.

We are technologically saturated and desensitised. Artjam is an antidote in that it restores that balance by allowing us to feel sensitised again.