Childhood revisited: cultural exchange through children's art

Guest blogger: Simin Zhang, Huanghang, Hubei, China.

On 28 September 2018, I went to the State Library of Queensland to meet Dr Barbara Piscitelli AM.  We had briefly met once before – on Christmas Day in 2015 at the Hubei Provincial Library when I attended a 20th anniversary exhibition of an international children’s art exchange.  When I was a child, in 1995, I made a brush painting of my dress designs, and it was selected to be part of an international exchange of children’s art from Hubei in China and Queensland in Australia. At the anniversary exhibition, I met other former child artists, and we shared stories about our lives. I also was able to speak with Barbara, and was able to see my work again – but only in a digital print. Others in the group had already travelled to Brisbane to see their original art work, and their stories sparked my interest in seeing my own work again.

My dress design. Work by Simin Zhang , aged 5, from China. From 7116 Dr Barbara Piscitelli AM Children's Art Archive. In copyright. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 7116-0002-0171

My dress design. Work by Simin Zhang , aged 5, from China. From 7116 Dr Barbara Piscitelli AM Children's Art Archive. In copyright. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 7116-0002-0171

In 2018, I eventually had the chance while I was on vacation to Australia. I met Barbara and some of the State Library of Queensland staff – Anna Raunik (Executive Director, Content and Client Services), Stella Read (Young People and Families) and Thom Browning (Young People and Families).  They had prepared some materials for me to review in a private viewing area where we could talk.  Some works were laid out on a table, alongside photographs, catalogues and boxes with collection materials relating to this project. One of the boxes was presented to me, and I was invited to open it to find my scroll.

Simin Zhang with the artwork she created in 1995. Image: State Library of Queensland

Simin Zhang with the artwork she created in 1995. Image: State Library of Queensland

It was so touching and surprising to see my painting of 23 years ago when I was only five years old. State Library of Queensland have preserved my painting deliberately and inspired me with the care they have taken.  From my perspective, this shows the value that the library and the culture holds towards arts and creativity, especially in childhood. The moment when I opened the storage box, I felt like a time capsule was presented to me and waited for me to open it. When I saw the painting and the mounting, it suddenly drew me back to the 1990s and memories of me painting while my dad sat alongside and instructed me.

Stella Read, Dr Barbara Piscitelli AM with Simin Zhang. Image: State Library of Queensland

Stella Read, Dr Barbara Piscitelli AM with Simin Zhang. Image: State Library of Queensland

While at the library, I was able to text my father – he told me that the painting was created by me, without a topic.  I made this work at home. My father made the scroll for me – using bamboo paper and a backing.  I remember he advised me to take my time with the calligraphy writing to make sure I did not make any mistakes, as that might ruin the whole picture.

Painting, designing and dress making is still part of my life and passion, even though my professional practice is in engineering.  I find there are clear connections between my interests from my childhood and into my adulthood through this painting.

The comparison of children’s painting between Australia and China makes me think about the different art education approach. In Australia, art education emphasizes originality, questing on how different the art work can be. Children are using imagination to create art works. Meanwhile, Chinese children’s art education emphasizes more on painting techniques and rewards the accomplishment of art works. I hold the opinion that there is a need for a balance between imaginative originality and the development of painting techniques. Different painting techniques allow children to gain a deeper understanding of art processes, but it’s vital to give sufficient space for creativity and to develop the ability of the imagination. Children often create brand new things through their ingenious nature.

My trip to Australia has been made extra special and very personal because of this visit.  I appreciate so much that State Library of Queensland has given me the opportunity to touch back with my childhood which I rarely can do after growing up. It’s a life gift for me.

Simin Zhang

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