Hop on the tile train: preserving cultural tradition through art

It is an exciting time to be involved with tile art, as the popularity of the craft is on the rise.  Many attribute this to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

In the article “Carving out a place in history: tile carvers put traditional craftsmanship first”, Zhang Wen of Global Times writes, “Many people started to take notice of this traditional art form when Zhang was requested to carve tile walls for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Village.” The article focuses on Zhang Yan, a Chinese artist who works with bricks, carving serene images into them – including flowers and mountains.

Zhang comes from a long line of tile carvers.  It is a family tradition.  He takes pride in continuing the traditional art form of both his family and country.  Each carving is a lengthy process.  One must be patient and never anxious.  Zhang has 20 apprentices!  They work together, repeatedly redefining the tile’s surface.  It is a quest for perfection.  It is also a quest to better a city and country.  Business is good for Zhang.  He is making money all while preserving Chinese tradition.  Many of his carvings are scattered throughout Beijing, on residential properties as well as businesses.  That, I feel, is one of the biggest strengths of tile art.  Like moths to a flame, eyes naturally drift toward tile art.

As Jorge Selaron revitalized a dreary and drab part of Rio de Janeiro and illuminated the inherent vividness of the city, Zhang is staying true to tradition while making it a part of modernization.  Sometimes an artist becomes so synonymous with a town or city that he or she becomes indistinguishable from the identity.  Selaron certainly was and Zhang is as well.

Tile art is personal, but its biggest strength is how it affects and transforms the public sphere.  An installation, for example, can honor the victims of a tragedy or it can reinforce a hospital’s mission statement.  It can help makeover a city block by beautifying a wall and showing the potential for the block and the city as a whole.  Tile art reminds one of tradition and unites hearts in common cause.  It, in other words, thwarts the totalitarianism of feeling and frees up a city.

For more information on Zhang Yan, look here.


*Image courtesy of Peter Griffin