Renqian Yang earned her B.F.A. in Ceramics from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Chongqing in 2009, and her M.F.A. in Ceramics from Syracuse University in 2014. Currently, she lives and works in Oswego, New York as an artist and Assistant Professor at the State University of New York at Oswego. Yang’s work has continued to exhibit in the U.S. and China. Her recent exhibitions include – Renqian Yang: Sounds of The Ephemeral, Fou Gallery, New York (2021) Rivers Connect: Unstoppable Forces in Contemporary Ceramics, Northern Kentucky University (2021) In January 2017, she had her first solo exhibition: Complementary Colors, in New York at Fou Gallery. She served as a residency artist at the Chautauqua School of Art, NY (2012) Craigardan (2018), Jingdezhen International Studio (2018), the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts (2017), and the STARworks Ceramics, NC (2022).
We’d love to hear how you got started. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Xiangtan city, Hunan Province, China. My parents were usually busy, so I stayed home by myself a lot and started drawing every day. My mom sent me to study traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting, she knew I had a strong interest in drawing. As I prepared for my college entrance exam, we thought Art school might be a good option. My mom supported me to take some art courses from a local art studio. I spent all my senior years practicing drawing in Changsha, (the capital city of Hunan province) with some friends that trained in the same studio. I was probably 18 years old, away from home for the first time, wandering around the street of Changsha city. I was determined to be an artist even though I was not sure what that meant. I ended up getting into one of the best art schools: Sichuan Fine Art Institute in Chongqing, China. There I studied ceramics. I had no idea what ceramics was, but I did my best to learn. Although I still wanted to be a painter, clay as a material was very fascinating and challenging. I had a strong interest in contemporary ceramics, and how the abstract expressionists influenced some of the great ceramic artists. I ended up attending grad school at Syracuse University in the U.S, where I found my interest in installation art. I also took as many painting courses as I could.
What brings you to art? What ideas are you exploring in your creative practice?
I tried for over a year after graduating from college and worked at companies. I worked 9 to 6 like everyone else around me. I was so bored at work and missed spending time creating. I think curiosity and passion brought me back to Art. I genuinely believe art equalized everybody because we all have the freedom to create. In my early artwork, coming from a social realism-influenced art background, I was mostly exploring works that are social commentary, and themes such as migration and survival. Later, I started transitioning from the outside to the inside world, and how human emotions deeply affected our everyday activities. My work is about binaries. The opposition is not always just black and white, there is a big gray area in-between to explore. I’m very interested in the opposition’s ideas, ideas that are contradicting each other. For example, pessimistic and optimistic, happiness and sadness, there’s just a fine line between the extreme oppositions. I am also still exploring clay, form, texture color, chance, and how those elements play in my artwork.
Do you have a mentor or piece of advice that influenced your practice?
I always feel very lucky that I had a lot of great mentors throughout my art career, some are great professors/mentors from both my undergraduate study in China and in graduate study at Syracuse University. Some are my best friends, colleagues, and galleries. The most important ones are my parents, especially my mom. My mom is always encouraging me to believe in myself, which is difficult because I grow up in a background that’s extremely competitive, and where collectivism is bigger than individualism. She always encouraged me to pursue a path that I love and always believed in my choice, even if that means I live in a different country far away from them. My dad will always say if I fail, I can always come home, they are always my foundation.
How do you define “success” in art?
I think we all must be careful with the idea of “success”, whether it’s the society imposed on you, or what other people define success for you. We should all come to terms to have our own definition of success. I think success in art for me is about not giving up. You consider this your life calling, while always finding joy in it. You allow space for a fresh mind, are not afraid of failure and enjoy the process of creating. Of course, success in art also means that your artwork can make a connection with one individual, or even better, connects with a group or a generation of people and that your work brings something interesting things to the world. Even a small impact can inspire others to look at the world just a bit differently, which is a success for me.
What does “community” mean to you? How do you see yourself in a community?
Clay as a field is very community based because of the labor-intensive process, which a lot of times requires collaboration with others. People in general, are very friendly, open, and supportive in the clay community. “Community” also means your local community. I started a local event called “Empty Bowls” in the community where I live, where we invited people to create handmade bowls and decorate them. We then hosted a big beneficiary to sell the bowls and make donations to raise money for our local food pantry. A great example of art is bringing community members together. Also, a community means not just the people around you, but the world, in a sense. There is a global community that we are all part of, so if we can think more like that, we are connected and all in the same community. Maybe there will be fewer conflicts and crises in the world. If we can all contribute a positive voice in the community where we live, which might be a good start.
Is there any advice you would like to share with others?
I think in general, it’s very important to accept failure as part of the learning process. I have had many more failures than successes ever since I started my art journey. When I teach, I always emphasize not being afraid of failure and getting out of your comfort zone. The more times you fail, the more you learn. Failing is a part of growth. That’s also one piece of advice that I continue to remind myself of.
text & photo courtesy of Renqian Yang