Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist


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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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Why Become an Artist

April 30th, 2014

As you get older, it's easy to forget what drew you to a particular passion.

Once in a while, you'll meet someone who reminds you. Their struggles and concentration – and their wonder at what the simplest tools can create – take you back to the fresh pleasure of mark-making. Painting without consideration for the ego, or the pocketbook, or having to explain what it all MEANS.

Recently I led a kids charity mural project in Beijing. (Painted a jungly green as an antidote to our grey northern city.) 

We had all sorts of painters. Big ones, small ones.

 Parents even.

Most people stopped for a second or two. Some stopped for longer.

A few were brave enough to actually pick up a paintbrush.

At the end of the day we were left with traces of all those who passed through.

And as vines spooled over the canvases and painters got lost in their work, I was reminded of why I became an artist in the first place.

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It’s Official: Artist-in-Residence in Beijing

March 16th, 2014

Dongba shaman

Cyanotype experiment: Naxi Dongba shaman printed onto dumpling skin, 2013

The ink makes it final.

There's a chop or two that makes it official. 

A visa renewal is in the works.

What's this mean?

I'm in Beijing for 2 more years, as artist-in-residence at an international school. And looking forward to every minute of it. 

Two more years of making work in Beijing, of exploring art supplies and pollution within China, of working with a community I've enjoyed very much so far. They've offered me a studio space, art supplies, and a network of talented people to collaborate with.

How could I say no? I wasn't quite ready to leave yet: my Chinese needs a big bump from 'travelers' to 'conversational'; I'm keen to translate Beijing experiments into finished work, while collaborating on prints with Chinese artists; and I'd like to connect aspiring artists with art professionals and institutions here.

So, here's to two more years!

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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

As you might guess, 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.

image (2)

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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Ten Years in Asia: Stepping Into the Unknown

October 31st, 2013

Ten years ago, if you'd asked where I'd be living in 2013, I would have never predicted it: an ancient neighborhood at the heart of Beijing, just a stone's throw from the walls of the Forbidden City.

Morocco, with a cat and a library of art and leather-bound travel books? Maybe. But China, with an English husband and an electric motorbike? Never.

When I left the US in 2003, all I knew was I would never live there again. Well, not for long. Not because there was anything to run from, but there were so many amazing places in the world to run TO. The future lay somewhere different from the countries where I was born and would die someday, and hopefully many places in between.

Untitled

Hutong rooftops across from our balcony in Nanluoguxiang, Beijing

When I was young enough to still want to believe but old enough to know better, my father took hold of my hand one day, peeled back my fingers and read my palm.

"Look at this," and he pointed at the center of my hand. "That's your life line. It's got a break in it. That could mean you'll die young, but more likely you'll have a dramatic shift in your life sometime."

Untitled

Home is a sunny balcony, anywhere in the world. With the neighbors' underwear, even

When I stepped on a plane bound for Korea ten years ago, I knew nothing of what lay ahead. Knew very little about the job and roommate that awaited (probably for the best, he was an alcoholic pensioner). All I knew was I was single and wanted to stay that way – but even that resolution failed once I locked eyes with a handsome stranger in a cafe, three months later.

To mark a decade of life in Asia, I was going to write a post like "Ten Experiences I Couldn't Have Had if I'd Stayed Home", or go on narcissistically about childhood dreams that have come true here, or "Twelve Reasons to Seek Adventure Halfway Around the World, Before It's Too Late" (though of course, really, it's never too late for adventure).

tin truck

Our Beijing neighborhood looks like a stage set at night

But as I walked home with my Old Man after dinner at a Korean restaurant, where we'd grown nostalgic over bibimbap and bulgogi, and drunk cocktails named after neighborhoods we'd strolled in during our first few months in Korea, I realized that all the most remarkable experiences of the past ten years had one person in common: the man I was holding hands with down a dark alley.

with the Man

If I'd not boarded that plane to the unknown, I would have never met the person who has changed my life for the better, in every way. It's not easy to live with me: our house reeks of sheep from rugs I brought back from Kashgar this month; hundreds of artists' papers weigh down the top of our wardrobe; silk for handmade books crowds our bookshelves, and cyanotype prints take up half the towel space as they dry in the bathroom. Not to mention my, er, 'artistic temperament' which, as often than not, tests his more diplomatic one. But he's no angel, either. It's why we get on.

Happy tenth hook-up anniversary to the best person I've run into, ever. The one I'm looking forward to sharing many more good times and places with in the future. 

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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, right after finishing university, I was sleeping on the floors and in the spare bedrooms of various kind (or exploitative) people in Liverpool, while working at what might pass for 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 home, it was familiar. It took a long time to figure out why: this is where I had stood in the dream, ten years before.

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