What was your inspiration for Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem About China?
Twenty years ago I did a workshop at the Roper Institute in Boulder on Chinese calligraphy. I thought it also might be fun to introduce some Chinese characters—pictograms and ideograms—that have meaning in themselves beyond the pictures. But I had no paper, and on the spur of the moment I found a scroll of paper towels in the men’s room. Beyond the Great Mountains is basically that same poem I wrote and illustrated on that paper 20 years ago.
The creative people at Chronicle Books came up with the idea of using stepped pages that made the publication feasible.
What was your purpose in creating this multilayered book?
I was interested in doing two things: I wanted to introduce the Chinese mind, how it interprets an emotion in a different way than the Western mind, and I wanted to figure out a way that Westerners could understand that difference. My mission was to create a bridge between the two cultures so that the Chinese way of seeing the world might become easily accessible to the Western mind.
Can you explain what you mean by the book’s subtitle, “A Visual Poem About China”?
I explain what I mean by visual verse and talk about the difference between Western and Chinese concepts at the end of the book using the example of the word “leisure.” To illustrate that word, a Western artist might choose to depict a person floating on his back in the water, but the Chinese mind would never be satisfied with something that literal. The Chinese might choose to depict a moon peeking through an open door to illustrate a state of mind rather than a single instance of leisure. I think of this concept as visual haiku.
You’ve chosen many different mediums for your more than 80 books. Why did you choose collage for this particular work?
I’ve found that collage promises a lot of different textures that you just can’t get from any other medium, and since many different kinds of Chinese characters have different patterns and textures, I thought collage was the appropriate medium. Some of the paper I acquired, and some of the paper I made myself. When I decided to aim the book at a younger audience, I decided to use various kinds of colored papers.
What audience did you intend for this book?
I hope that the book will yield a different level of appreciation for different ages. One of my missions is to introduce children, appropriately, to different kinds of art, especially to abstract art. I have never stopped being a student. In each of my books, I have looked for a teacher to give me inspiration, and for this book it was Matisse.
Can you explain why each page of the book incorporates words, images and Chinese characters?
Chinese characters have long been my passion. The Chinese communicate through pictures—in much the same way that the Western world is beginning to learn to use certain logos to communicate—and learning the language is very visceral. The Chinese choose to put both thoughts and feelings into a character, so that one does not rely only on the brain to understand them. The characters connect feelings with vision, so that once learned, a Chinese character sticks in one’s mind because it is connected to emotion. Like modern art—one does not proceed in a logical manner, but must perceive the picture whole.
Do you intend to explore Chinese characters in other books?
I am currently working on a book about animals, about how Chinese characters are put together to create a phrase or proverb based on historical events. But in addition to my fascination with Chinese culture and language, I also create books that deal with my present life. My Mei Mei (Philomel, Fall 2005) was inspired by my own daughter who wished for a younger sibling and found both struggles and fulfillment when her wish came true.