Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist


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Bright summer days in Beijing

June 24th, 2014

Summer in Beijing is here. Skies are clear, blue and bright.

Writing has taken a back seat to enjoying life and art in this hectic city.

acupuncture girl

Model from acupuncture shop, Beijing. Study for a series of large-scale photos, a meditation on censorship in the US called  Soft Power, to be exhibited at Meridian Space Beijing in 2015

 

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Shadows of Heritage Beijing: 1

May 1st, 2014

As more of Beijing's neighborhoods are smashed in the name of progress, those of us who live in them can do nothing. Many of the residents prefer to live in modern flats provided by developers. 

Why wouldn't they?

These apartments are warmed in the winter – with free municipal heating - by the coal which fills the city's skies. They have private toilets and hot showers and other luxuries which are rare in the hutongs, Beijing's old courtyard homes.

In the meantime, as the wrecking ball does its work, I do mine: I photograph shadows of the elegance which was, and may not be for much longer.

Shadows of Heritage 1: AP

Shadows of Heritage, Beijing: I

Cyanotype on handmade mulberry paper edition variee, Artists Proof, 12 x 24 inches

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Beijing: Black as Coal

February 26th, 2014

Two years ago, as my plane circled Beijing, I smelled the city before I saw it.

The metallic tang that filled my throat and grated my lungs would soon become familiar. It permeated everyone's clothing, and made my hair smell like nights out in a smoky dive.

charcoal bonsai

Charcoal in my studio

Once upon a time, all roads led to Rome. These days they all lead to China (and China's, to Beijing), the roads are more crowded than ever, and those of us who live here are choking from the fumes. 

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Smog flattens faux "Great Wall"-style buildings into silhouettes, Beijing

Every dollar spent on a product made in China supports infrastructure which - in its current form - poisons the people who live here. 

In the capital, we are poisoned by the air we breathe.

Armed for Beijing

Today the air is so hazardous that pollution levels are off the charts (and I wear a Respro mask outside)

There are many reasons. 

One is that cycling is now done by few people, apart from the very old,

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and the very hip.

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Another is the coal which fuels, for example, the computer I use to write these words, and the ebike I use to explore the city.

It also heats our homes.

So, on mornings like this, we breathe dust from the coal which has kept us from freezing overnight. And which heats the water for the showers and caffeine that fuel our days.

To cope, I keep our air purifiers running 24/7. We check China's AQI (Air Quality Index) before going outside. And before making weekend plans, double check the Smogcast.

As I try to reconcile what's outside my studio with what I make in it, I've become drawn to using the toxic materials which permeate my everyday life.

One of them is charcoal:

wood on wood

from the local market.

I grind it up in a mortar and pestle,

mortar pestle charcoal

strain it, and sift it into a glass cup used in Chinese medicine.

crushed charcoal

After sifting several times, the pigment is fine enough to be mixed with a painting medium (oil or acrylic). I'm using it to sketch out several new pieces on linen canvas. 

Someday I'll write about them here.

But for now, I'd like to add: Beijing's infamous dirty air doesn't even hit the top 10 of China's most-polluted cities (though 7 of them are in neighboring provinces). Millions suffer from much worse conditions than we do, but they don't make headlines - because diplomats and foreign journalists don't live there.

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A security guard on a smoggy morning in Beijing's embassy district

While days like this feel apocalyptic, I'm also struck by how lucky some of us are. I write this post in the room where I teach art three days a week. Next to me is a US$3000 air purifier. In my desk drawers are quality masks I wear outside which filter out much of the pollution. At home, we use two cheap – but effective - SmartAir purifiers. 

Most of my neighbors in the hutongs don't even have toilets; affordable (non-counterfeited) masks and air purifiers are out of reach.

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migrant workers on their way to a job site on a hazy morning

And yet, Beijingers manage to work hard, enjoy life, and make the most of whatever comes their way.

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Tea and Paper Travels in China

January 10th, 2014

There's nothing quite like the smell of fresh tea flowers, or a pinch of Pu'er tea to warm up a cold morning.

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Nanluoshan (in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province) is a mountain in southwest China, long famous for its fine teas.

paper wrapped tea

My travels to Nanluoshan were not for tea, but for paper.

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This Dai village on Nanluoshan makes mulberry paper for wrapping the region's famous teas. 

Unlike plastic, a wrapper of handmade paper 'breathes' and lets the tea age gracefully over the years.

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There were papermakers everywhere.

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As in Thailand, most of the Dai papermakers were women.

There was even one who handled her drill as confidently as Rosie the Riveter – this was the first drill I've ever seen used at a paper factory.

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We followed a woman with a wheelbarrow-full of paper pulp to a house which was filled with paper molds…

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from floor to ceiling – a long narrow shape I'd not seen before.

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Turns out it's perfect for wrapping tea cakes.

Papermaker in Xishuangbanna

After I bought 45 sheets of different papers for my China Paper Collection, I sat with my guide a while under a canopy, and watched the afternoon light fade through paper screens.

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Naturally, You Know Who was watching over us, too.

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Poster on the terrace of a Dai papermaker's home

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Making Art in Chiang Mai

December 16th, 2013

I'm excited to announce an upcoming collaboration with Chiang Mai Art on Paper (C.A.P.) studio.

Starting next week until the new year, I'll be making new artwork in Thailand's northern capital.

Kong examining plate

C.A.P.'s founder and director, artist Kitikong Tilokwattanotai inspects a test bookplate

discussing in print room

Kitikong discussing printing techniques with an assistant

displaying print and saa

A fresh plate with printing ink, and a piece of sa'a (paper mulberry) bark

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Silk Road Papers

November 22nd, 2013

Xinjiang papermaker and chop

A papermaker in the Silk Road oasis town of Khotan in what is today Northwest China. He stamps artists' papers with his family's chop before I take them to Beijing – a journey of nearly 3000 miles. The papers come in two different sizes, part of my "Greater China Artists' Papers Collection".

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Everything’s Bigger in China

September 9th, 2013

These days, the gigantic monuments and boulevards and ambitions of Beijing make the news every week.

"Isn't it amazing what a totalitarian government can do?" rave conservative Western pundits. "The Chinese government decides to do something" – build a dam, knock down an ancient city and build a replica in its place, colonize its deserts and grasslands with Han peasants who have no idea how to farm them - "and they just….DO it!"  These may be marvels if you don't have to live with them. Or their consequences.

At any rate, Chinese artists dream just as big – if not bigger – than their American counterparts.

And they've got the brushes to prove it.

brush in 798

Giant horsehair brush in Beijing's 798 arts district

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Dreaming of Hong Kong

August 8th, 2013

dreamy HK

View of Kowloon from Hong Kong harbor

Many years ago, after finishing university, I was sleeping on the floors and in the spare bedrooms of various kind friends in Liverpool, while working at a decrepit 'gallery with character'. One night as if to escape I dreamt of Hong Kong – a place I'd never thought of much, one way or the other. But then forgot it, as you do.

The first time I stood at this ferry pier, waiting for the boat to take me from Central Hong Kong to my new home on Lamma Island, it was familiar. It took a long time to figure out why: this is exactly where I had stood and what I had seen in the dream, ten years before.

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“Nobody Else Makes Paper Like This”

July 29th, 2013

Mr. Nalongkone

Mr. Nalongkone and his wife, in a paper village near Luang Prabang, Laos

 

Across the river from the bustling tourist town of Luang Prabang, a sleepy village hugs the riverbank, and you can hear the pounding of papermakers as they turn mulberry bark into paper paste.

My bicycle slips down a muddy trail from the highway, and stops in front of a paper artist's studio I'd visited four years before. 

To make something new takes inspiration, dedication – and a healthy ego. Mr. Nalongkone is a painter whose dayjob is papermaking. He is always thinking about paint: "See this paper, it's good for acrylic," and he pulls out an unassuming sheet from a stack of hundreds. "Look at the surface, it doesn't absorb the paint too much. It lets the paint stay on top."

He's most proud of his papers that use luxurious materials. No one else in town – and in fact, no papermaker I've met – adds these unusual ingredients. "These are made with teak wood," and he points to a shelf of papers in a dozen natural shades ranging from cream to brown. But my favorite is made with byproducts of agar wood, a rare aromatic wood indigenous to Southeast Asia. You can smell it on the sois of Bangkok's Little Dubai. Though the paper isn't scented, the wood adds a creamy color and silky texture to the paper. I bought a few dozen sheets and am experimenting to see how it holds up with different media like pastel and ink.

"This is all there is," Mr. Nalongkone says of the agar paper. It was a one-off experiment with material donated by an Austrian friend. "There won't be any more after this is gone. Nobody makes these kinds of papers but me." His papers are about as far from the factory as you can get – they're one of a kind.

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“We’ve Made It for 400 Years”

July 12th, 2013

Van 3

Van (right), silk designer and paper aficionado, with Mrs. Dieu (left)

In the far northeast of Hanoi's suburbs, a papermaking industry lives on.

Mrs. Dieu and her husband have made fine Vietnamese papers for decades (his family has made them for 400 years). Now the tradition is being carried on by their nieces and nephews. Their town of Bac Ninh was once full of hand papermakers; now there are only a few remaining, and fewer still make innovative or unusual papers.

In the four years since I last visited, the Dieus stopped making paper due to his diabetes (now a common problem in Vietnam), but sold me some of what they had made back in 2011.

Some is made of cotton, soft and thick, with a unique canvas-like texture from the mosquito nets they press into freshly-made paper. But my favorite is made with the pure Do tree fiber. Only in Vietnam is this tree used for papermaking. While thicker Do papers are of middling quality compared to Thai, Chinese and Japanese papers, this special thin paper was commissioned by libraries or art restorers. It is incredibly strong for its weight, and feels ephemeral as spiderwebs.

I've bought hundreds of papers for my handmade paper book and paper collections (coming out later this year). They're made from different trees and hands and purposes, but they are all made by people who are passionate about the traditions they carry on.

The Dieus make pretty amazing paper. They're amazing people, too.

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