Visual Artist Zheng Chongbin P’19 Brings the Natural World Into the Studio with Advanced Visual Art Students

Internationally renowned visual artist Zheng Chongbin P'19 just wrapped up his month-long residency working with juniors in Eric Oldmixon’s Advanced Visual Arts class. Chongbin is an internationally renowned, Marin County–based artist whose career has spanned three decades. Chongbin is also the father of Branson alumna Phoebe Zheng '19. Read more about his exhibit and work

Chongbin joined Branson’s Advanced Visual Arts class in May. The project began with students touring his site-specific installation, “I Look For the Sky,” which is currently on display at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. After the visit, students discussed the installation, as well as his paintings and a video installation.  

Returning to the studios, Chongbin demonstrated his painting techniques and then the students dove in to try their hand at combining traditional Sumi ink with acrylic white paint on Chinese drawing papers. Much of the beauty is in the fractal-like patterns created as the two different materials reticulate and dry, mimicking fractal geometries of the natural world, which is a central theme in Chongbin's work. The process is meant to surrender artistic control, to be playful, and to give voice to the materials in the practice of creation. A big step for young students of art, this technique can be simultaneously unsettling and liberating.  Natalie Wendt ‘22 said, “something that Chongbin really emphasized in his process was experimentation, especially when he showed us how to use the acrylic paint and ink.”

Lena Segrue ‘22 reflected, “letting go and letting the materials become what they are going to become was hard for me at the beginning but having those two days of low stakes experimenting with materials really helped me feel more confident.”

With a deeper understanding of his technical practice, the class took a trip to Phoenix Lake, where students were asked to observe the topography and environment so that they could bring that experience directly into their art. Returning to campus, the students looked for opportunities with their painting experiments. Working in two smaller groups, they assembled and collaged their paintings to ideate and create a unified mural referring to the observations and experiences of the trip to the (now nearly dry) lake.

Eventually, the groups put their pieces together in the Drawing & Painting Studio. They used the physical space and each other's works to turn the entire room into abstract art. The pieces incorporated their exploration of Phoenix Lake in both the abstract and literally – one group used digitally manipulated photographs from the dried out lake bed as part of their work. The piece was on display at FAB 2021.

“The students demonstrated quite an ability,” said Chongbin. “I was inspired by how they took all the liberties and imagination, and the work is really strong.” Chongbin appreciated working with the students and observing, “how they were not afraid to dive into the new materials.”

During the project, Chongbin said he emphasized collaboration and bringing the students’ environment into their work. He encouraged them to respond to nature – for example, the California drought that is changing the landscape, including Phoenix Lake. He pushed them to  incorporate notions of change and an evolving landscape into art, to not think of artistic expression and the world around them as separate.

To develop their own creative process, Chongbin encourages students to “continue on the path – anything that inspires you or motivates, keep repeating that process, so that you can develop your own method to tell your stories.” Many students went on to incorporate the techniques and concepts explored in creating culminating individual works to accompany the group display.

Chongbin is the father of Branson alumna Phoebe Zheng '19. Read more about his exhibit and work.

You can read student reflections on the project below: 

“The art we had seen before in the museum was very beautiful but seeing the video he created opened my eyes to what abstract art really looks like. He created a piece of art that truly spoke to his mind and he executed it beautifully which inspired me throughout my process” – Michael Paper ‘22

“Going to the Asian Art Museum and directly learning from Chongbin and seeing how he translates what he sees in his everyday life into an abstract piece of art inspired me to reflect upon how I see the world and how I can translate that into a piece of artwork. Seeing Chongbin work at school also gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for abstract art which I did not necessarily have before.” – Spencer West ‘22

“I would say this was a very successful project. Jaliyah and I worked on the same piece separately and we would meet in the middle. I really liked how you could see the different brush strokes on the side I did and how the tiny white brush strokes made it look highlighted.” – Caroline Deleon ‘22 (worked with Jaliyah Wiggins ‘22)