Vancouver mixed-media artist Peisen Ding has a keen interest in the intersection between art and education. It’s led Ding, who uses the pronouns he and they, to pursue a PhD in curriculum studies at UBC, with a focus on art education. His artistic practice explores relationships between people and the built environment.
“My main goal is to keep being an artist and then to put efforts into community building,” Ding tells Pancouver over Zoom. “For example, I can contribute to the communities through teaching art and making art more accessible.”
This passion for community makes the Nanjing-born queer artist an ideal ambassador for BC Culture Days. Not only does he speak Mandarin, Nanjingese, and English, but he also knows some Spanish because his partner is from Mexico.
“I feel very honoured and lucky to be one of the ambassadors,” Ding says. “Then, of course, there are also responsibilities.”
BC Culture Days is a nationwide celebration of the arts that runs from September 22 to October 15. The initiative showcases creativity and cultural diversity through more than 460 low-barrier events in this province.
As one of the BC Culture Days ambassadors, Ding looks forward to his first exhibition in Canada. Interactive Exhibition: Lost & Found will take place at the grunt gallery (#116-350 East 2nd Avenue) from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday (September 23).
It includes three components. The first, Chasing Clouds, is a series of his very large paintings hung from the ceiling. He created these acrylic works during the pandemic when he was taking great comfort looking at the skies. On the backside are Chinese-language newspaper articles expressing local concerns in the community.
“Most of them are related to how to settle in Vancouver,” Ding says. “I also have some messages related to COVID-19.”
Ding shares his love of porcelain
This is one of several ways in which the Gastown resident reflects his Chinese identity and his connection to the broader community.
Ding’s second component of the exhibition, Mind-Scape, is a series of small ceramic landscapes made of porcelain clay. It’s one of his favourite ceramic materials.
“My family always used porcelain at home,” the artist reveals. “I have a personal connection there.”
These landscapes are all in black and white. That’s because he wanted to create something unreal, akin to the inner space in the mind.
“I’m embracing my cultural background and also trying to deliver a peaceful feeling to the audience,” Ding says.
The third aspect of Interactive Exhibition: Lost and Found is called A Place to Belong. It offers people an opportunity to draw and doodle.
“You don’t have to draw if you don’t feel comfortable,” the artist emphasizes. “You can write about it.”
Next is a napping station with a big beanbag and blankets. And the final station includes many treats from his childhood in China, including White Rabbit candy.
“The audience can take any they want,” Ding says with a chuckle.
As a BC Culture Days ambassador, Ding will appear at two other events. Next Wednesday (September 27) at 7 p.m., the Richmond Art Gallery will host a free online talk called Artist Salon: Peisen Ding on Working as a Newcomer Artist. It will include a question-and-answer session with automated English captions.
Encouraging immigrants to tell stories
Then at 5 p.m. on October 13, Ding will offer a Life Stories Painting Workshop at Gordon Neighbourhood House (1019 Broughton Street) in Vancouver’s West End.
“Basically, I will share my own experience,” he says. “Then, as an immigrant, I will encourage the participants to share their own stories—for example, travel stories or even life-stage transition stories. Then we can connect and paint together.”
That leads Pancouver to ask Ding what he might share with new immigrants to help them make a smoother transition to Canadian life. He pauses for a moment before saying that the biggest issue might be the cultural differences. When he first arrived in Canada in 2018, he felt a little bit different.
“Then, I tried to connect with others,” Ding says. “I feel like, as an immigrant, I should make an effort in learning about the local communities and then to learn about local cultures.”
He adds that new immigrants often don’t know how the employment system works in Canada. As a result, he sees value in lowering one’s expectations a little bit at the beginning and recognize that there are many different ideologies within Canada’s “mosaic culture”.
“When we come to a new place, we need time to get to know everything,” Ding states.
From Nanjing to Vancouver
He feels lucky to have grown up in Nanjing, which is a centre for art education in China. At Nanjing Normal University, he studied fine arts with a focus on art education.
“I learned Chinese traditional painting—calligraphy—oil painting, photography, and different forms of art,” Ding relates. “This gave me a foundation to be a mixed-media artist.”
His father practises traditional Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy as a hobby. Ding’s grandmother is a talented weaver and paper-cutting artist.
Ding cites both of them as important artistic influences. However, as a queer person, he didn’t feel totally comfortable in China. He couldn’t really talk about himself openly with everyone and only had a few friends with whom he felt connected.
“That’s why I feel I wanted to move abroad to a country that accepts the LGBTQ+ community.”
Nevertheless, Ding acknowledges that times are changing in China for gay people. That’s because younger people have a much higher level of acceptance than previous generations.
In 2015, Ding moved to England to attend the University of Sheffield, where he earned a master’s degree in experimental archeology. His academic work focused on the reconstruction of ancient craftsmanship, including ceramics and metalsmithing.
In conversation, Ding comes across as friendly, gentle, fun-loving, curious, and caring—all qualities that he incorporates into his artistic works. And he feels that his mixed-media practice offers plenty of opportunities for public engagement.
“I want to see the social concerns; I want to be aware of that,” Ding says. “I also want to connect with the community by doing my art. And I want to deliver care and courage to people who have a similar background as me.”