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Artwork and photo by Tong Shen.

Interview: Tong Shen, Artist-in-Residence at Ottawa School of Art, talks about calligraphy, corporations and meaningful interactions in her art

By Bill Staubi on March 24, 2020

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Artwork by Tong Shen. Photo: Tong Shen.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tong Shen, Artist-in-Residence at the Ottawa School of Art (OSA), to talk about her life and work and her perspective on art and artists.

Shen was born in Tai’an, a culturally important city of over 5 million people in the province of Shandong in western China along the Yellow Sea. Tai’an is at the base of Mount Tai, one of the five sacred mountains of China and a UNESCO Heritage site. Built in homage to Taishan Mountain (Mount Tai), one of China’s sacred peaks, Tai’an was named after an old saying: “If all is well on Mount Tai, the world will be at peace.” Until the age of 12, Shen’s spiritual life depended on the rich and diverse cultural atmosphere of her home city.

Ottawa School of Art Artist-in-Residence Tong Shen. Photo: Tong Shen.

As a child, Shen discovered how strongly knowledge and belief can connect people. Her mother started her learning calligraphy and traditional painting. Calligraphy training requires the student to produce the characters precisely, and so repetition aimed at perfection is a big part of the apprenticeship. Referencing the Renaissance teachings of Leonardo da Vinci, who made his students draw the same things over and over, Shen credits this historic approach and her early calligraphy training as an important part of developing her artistic approach.

The interplay between positive and negative space mirrors the efforts Shen makes in balancing the competing forces she observes in the physical, socio-political, and artistic environments.

At the time of our conversation, Shen’s workspace was full of intricately patterned panels where shapes of varying sizes were repeatedly cut out of long panels of white paper, giving physical confirmation of how much those childhood memories manifest themselves in her current working methods. The interplay between positive and negative space mirrors the efforts Shen makes in balancing the competing forces she observes in the physical, sociopolitical, and artistic environments.

Artwork by Tong Shen. Photo: Tong Shen.

Her family moved to Germany and then the U.S. before settling in Ottawa in 2005. She completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo, where her initial plan was to become a mathematician, like so many of her fellow students dreamed. Drawn to math and physics, she was ingrained with research methodology and the scientific approach: “Observe, analyze and experiment.” Her work began to develop strong atheistic and iconoclastic visual traditions, but still using traditional methods.

Shen switched from mathematics to visual arts because it let her focus on a bigger universal picture. Visual arts gave her the license to design unique encounters and events. Tong went on to do her MFA at Concordia in Montreal. Her passion for something unique and different inspires her paper creations while in residence at the OSA.

Artwork by Tong Shen. Photo: Tong Shen.

Alongside the cut panels, Shen has also been producing drawings of marginalized communities in Ottawa. Gathering clusters of these images, she starts to develop her unique analysis of how our society is functioning and begins to wonder, as an artist, what is her role in all this? What’s the role of artists in society?

Working with light and shadow, she expresses her feelings as an immigrant who has been displaced, seven times, for different reasons, and how she feels about the passing of time.

Artwork by Tong Shen. Photo: Tong Shen.

Shen’s conversations with other artists often involve the roles that corporations and individuals play in the arts sector. She accounts for this based on there being a Canadian identity that forms over time and can be read in work that reflects the Canadian social landscape. Working with light and shadow, she expresses her feelings as an immigrant who has been displaced, seven times, for different reasons, and how she feels about the passing of time.

By extension, Shen is a strong advocate for people interacting in meaningful as well as casual ways with one another, so we can better absorb who each of us is, rather than filtering out our essence through a virtual mechanism like a phone app. She expresses a concern that we are closing ourselves off, sharing an idealized life online while suffering the loss of authentic interaction. Through her art, Shen is trying to bring these observations and conclusions to our attention and provoke an interaction: not just with the art, but with each other.


Join Tong Shen for discussions about her art theories, art practice, and to see her work. Upcoming shows include:
April 8–22, Lee Matasi Gallery, 35 George St., Ottawa
July 1–July 31, Art House Cafe, 555 Somerset St., Ottawa
September or October (date TBA), Artist Network Ottawa, Shenkman Centre, 245 Centrum Blvd, Orleans

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