Open Letter from Barbara Bornet Stumph

Chapter President: Barbara Bornet Stumph


As an English and Ancient World History teacher and grandmother, Barbara Lee Bornet Stumph, MS, is one of 250 Americans who enrolled in the China Art Academy International College (CAAIC) to learn traditional Chinese calligraphy and ink painting. In 1965-1966, Barbara tackled intensive Mandarin and related studies at the East-West Center, University of Hawaii. “We want to go to China,” she declared. “You will go to Taiwan on field study,” answered Dr. John Young, Administrator. Her first trip to China 20 years later in 1986 on a Stanford Fulbright. One year earlier in 1985, Phyllis Case Bennett enrolled a handful of Americans in the CAAIC Short Term Study Program of traditional Chinese calligraphy/painting. Former President Xiao Feng welcomed the group in the beginning; in recent years, Dean Jin Zhilin, has advocated for continuance of the unique program in this longest exchange program of its type. It is located at beloved West Lake, Hang Zhou, China.

Open Letter

April 4, 2019

Dear Wild Orchid, Growing in China:

Modest Chinese orchid, you tip your face downward, as your fragrance fills my heart. Your grace-filled leaves extend themselves in mysterious white space on handmade, Xuan rice paper. You are a gift from my teacher Yan Xingkong’s demonstration in class. Dear Wild Orchid, your painting serves to remind me of refined friendships cultivated between Americans and Chinese artists over the 33 years during the Phyllis Case Bennett Chinese Culture and Art American Study Group. While Director Case Bennett is no longer able to attend, Director Joy Harvey, assisted by Dr. Pamela Lee, are working to carry on the program.

During the past four consecutive years, I enrolled at the prestigious Academy located adjacent to an emperor’s gardens at the water’s edge of West Lake, Hang Zhou, China. Intensive instruction in traditional Chinese culture arts (guo hua), calligraphy, ink painting, poetry, and art history was delivered to our classes by gifted professors with Chinese PhD’s in specific fields.

A package just arrived here for me here in California. We American painters knew our Chinese College administrators were preparing a book, however, we had no idea of the broad scope, depth of content, 125 pages of color photographs inside, nor bilingual messages of respect shown by our professors and ourselves of mutual respect memorialized therein. I believe this magnificent book should be in university libraries all over America and China even though the present publication scheduled numbers may be limited. Let me explain the impact of such a book on me:

I feel I am still there in action. I recall painting before, during, and after formal classes. I took copious notes which one of our professors asked to Xerox. We all did. Another teacher exclaimed, “You even work at night! You work harder than our Chinese students I think!” Where did our artistic paintings come from? The Academy teachers demonstrated for us. They generously shared their private library to help with compositional ideas.

Photographs are both formal and informal. These were culled from thousands taken by all. I turn pages. After painting all day, photos show fellow artists and I sauntering beneath willow and peach trees taking pictures of honeymooners on West Lake’s stone bridges; silver fish gulp for air in streams below, as mynah birds squawk, only to later appear in our paintings. The lake inspired me! “I am no longer a (VIP) East-West Center visitor,” I think to myself. “These days in China, I don’t hear, ‘Get off the bus, take a look; shop in that foreigner’s store. No time for sketching!’”

“Today in Hang Zhou I am a college student in China. I have found The Well of Chinese art. The mother lode,” I announce at dinner. I/we read books from the campus bookstore and buy supplies in Hang Zhou Art Mart . . . Listen and chat in Mandarin with ordinary people on lake walks. (The first time in my life I have had time to do so after forty-five years of study.) I admire my professors when I hear their heart talk with spiritual insights about The Way (Tao) of life that is focused upon Chinese writing and painting. Daily, I practice art and language. I learn to wield my brush on ultra-sensitive rice paper in ways I never thought possible. Our teachers are patient. Over and over they explain while demonstrating. All the while, I have time to contemplate ancient wisdom imparted by scholars, as well as the depth of friendships developing slowly between us, as we focus fully upon scholarly literati painting techniques of old by those who preserve the tradition of the world’s longest painting tradition.

Now that I am reading our new book, I learn courageous Dean Jin has documented our 33-year journey. I am thunderstruck. My eyes return to the cover: they feast upon the dramatic Chinese calligraphic title translated as, “Remembering Hang Zhou.” Whose calligraphy this is? (I speculate: famed artist and our teacher, Lin Haizhong? Fang Bo? Ph.D. candidate TJ Ren?) We Americans have been trained to know that bold ink handwriting reveals the writer’s inner spirit, as well as historical references, connotations, and denotations of language.

Imagine! Three decades of teachers and students are shown here. Before this book arrived, I had my paintings, photos, and notebooks from my journeys. Now, this treasure of a book documents what my professors thought about teaching us . . . that is, the most famous of our professors along with Dean Jin. Historical photos teach me what the earlier groups were like. Even recent trips to Cambria, California, to attend Joy’s Art Camp are here. It is overwhelming. In spite of political turmoil, our friends at the China Art Academy have dared to invite us, “elder foreigners,” to attend at their college for three decades. (Elder is an affectionate term.) Now this first class book that will surely honor us. Each page shows numerous examples of American made ink paintings by beginners and advanced levels alike. We read the text in English and Chinese expressing how deeply all participants have felt to be part of our exchange program. (I should add a couple of Germans have recently joined us, as well, due to internet exchanges on my web group, thus making our study program truly international.)

Our professors have degrees in calligraphy, landscape, bird/flower, portraiture, as well as in art history and many understand English quite well. (All Chinese students at the Academy pass English exams before they are admitted.) They have shared with us one of the longest art traditions in the world: writing and ink painting of China. At the outset, I read between the lines that each of our teachers wondered, “What will it be like to teach a group of Americans? Will the translator be able to convey the subtleties of my thoughts?” At a formal banquet, one of our teachers said, “I could never have conveyed the profound ideas to you students without Michael translating.” (Michael is the first foreigner, a raised-in-New-York-City-American to ever be invited to give the graduation speech in Mandarin at the Academy. He is also the first foreign student accepted in the PhD traditional landscape painting program, due to his diligent studies of classical Chinese characters, high spoken and literacy levels, and artist achievement. He is a practicing Buddhist, as well.)

Here I will quote what our teachers write: “How can Americans of today understand our rich heritage?” they pondered. They are pleased at how “respectful” Americans are of their long, rich cultural heritage. One says our American love Chinese art and people has given him “new found confidence” in his Chinese art heritage.

Famous Lin Haizong wrote in our book that we, students, are like “charming and graceful figures walking down from the paintings by Chen Laolian,” as he saw us walking “elegantly.” Professor Lin wrote on his page in our book:

Their (American) love of Chinese art won my favor . . . Sometimes I invited them to talk with me in the Hall of Two Dozen Columns or drink tea together in the Double Osmanthus Pavillion. Their behavior was of descent Western style with a kind of spiritual pursuit of oriental civilization that convinced me that somehow they were Chinese, or even Hang Zhou natives. They are our colleagues, I suppose.

Others commented that Americans “have cheerful smiles,” “a sense of humor,” and “eager expectation in our eyes.” American students ask “concise questions” revealing a “good basic education.” Famed Han Lu (guest lecturer, birds/flowers) says, “Phyllis Case Bennett said, ‘As you get older, I am catching up with you. I am getting younger!’ What a witty thing to say . . . I miss all the good times with all the group members of a similar age. How much they loved China and our painting art! Hope they come back some day. Welcome to their family and friends, as well.”

How did we, Americans, write about our experiences in this book? “A trip of a lifetime;” “. . . the study tour has influenced me, especially in my old age;” “. . . given me a profound love of Chinese ink painting;” “. . . learning Chinese painting changed my life;” “. . . my CAAIC studies made me a brighter and happier person;” “. . . both educational and fun!” This particular observer wrote, “Lessons are a bejeweled box; treasures await, as the lid opens, gradually, our inner spirits shine in ink.” We are all thankful.

I leaf through slowly. One whole page is dedicated to each of us who exhibited our own art work at the November 10, 2015, 30th Anniversary Exhibition. Photographs document: a life-sized video of our group taken while we were painting is shown on a huge screen during the art gallery show. I now remember Chinese music filling the hall. A friendly Chinese teacher lingers in front of my landscape, saying in Mandarin, “Did you paint this scene of Huang-shan? (Yellow Mountain.) May I take a picture with you? We can’t believe you foreigners can do this quality painting!” I encircle her waist with my arm. A camera man snaps our photo. A TV microphone is handed to me. “The tallest pine tree in my painting had a name marker called, ‘Black Dragon Tree,’” I say. “It looks easy to paint with Chinese ink, but it is not!” says the teacher next to me. “’It takes half a lifetime to learn bamboo . . . and a lifetime to paint orchid.” (Do you agree, Dear Wild Orchid?) We understand each other. We marvel at our good fortune to be building a bridge, as art lovers, between our two great countries, whose citizens are sometimes estranged.

One of our field trips, we visited Landscape Master Huang Gongwang’s home (1470-1559) with a walk into his rebuilt cabin located at his mountainous site. There was a machine under the bridge that creates mist like Sung Dynasty paintings. Walkways were lined with bamboo groves as tall as two story buildings. Here the life of a hermit painter is memorialized. I spot my unfinished painting of these landscape scene at Camp Joy in the book.

Photos of banks of red roses woven into 8 stands are lining the college’s museum walkway under a huge banner in honor of our work. I linger over photos where eight college girls cut red ribbons, as dozens of our professors, dignitaries, as well as CAAIC administrators,  are filmed by a local television station. Speeches and interviews of Dean Jin and Joy Harvey are read and translated by Michael Cavayero, as photos reveal.

This unique book shows the day we were introduced to Dragon Well Tea. I can smell its fragrant aroma. It was a misty morning when we sketched with a brush in a special style taught at CAAIC.  I close my eyes from seeing the new book, embraced by the scholar rock garden, Dragon Well cave walk, and the enchantment we all feel as we are uplifted by sounds of a waterfall that rippled into the stream as leaves drifted by. Here is refined, elegant living. I particularly love my memories of talking with senior citizens reading Chinese newspapers that day, while others sipped their tea and caught up on neighborhood gossip. “This is my favorite place to paint,” says Dr. Dai Guangying (landscape.)

Dear Wild Orchid, photos show our teachers answering myriads of our questions. Bilingual black boards covered with characters are decoded by Fangwen Qi and Michael Cavayero. Subtle translations of original poetry on paintings by artists from famed Sung, Yuan, or Tang painters are shared with us. (Our Western museum books in English at home have these paintings. I don’t have the translations.) I am thrilled. Another photo reminds me when we are treated to lessons of ancient characters by a specialist. Another week, we spend time on the complex placement of red seals, deciphering artistic merits of composition and balance, ever seeking harmony, as well as culturally-bound ways to sign paintings in Chinese writing. We learn to be ever mindful of ink painting which seeks brushstrokes that are “wet/dry, dark/light, gathered/scattered, and filled/empty . . .” in search of balance (Tao) and right ways (Confucius).

The last time I went, they took us on a trip to visit the site and museum of “Dragon Kilns,” 500 or so, built deep in the mountains, which were the source of internationally beloved Celadon Pottery. On the way, we stand in awe of a UN World Heritage Architecture Exhibition with sustainable bamboo buildings. Personal field trips were to the Zhe Jiang Regional Museum, Seal Society, Ceramics Museum, and the Bing Ling Temple. Shopping in Hang Zhou is a rich trek, as we get our painting supplies. These events could not be in our new book.

Dear Wild Orchid, I spy photographs of me in groups. I am practicing Mandarin with Dean Jin. My 101-year-old scholar father loves this publication masterpiece. “You need to ask the College to give you a copy for the East-West Center Library immediately,” he says. One page has three of my better landscape, bird, and lotus paintings. Another page contains my large ink painting, an impression of the World Heritage Site, Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain.) I had walked with my Shanghai born teacher and friend, Celia Chou Huddleston. We fulfilled our dreams of seeing the “Mists on Yellow Mountain.” We chatted with Chinese visitors along the way. “You made many people happy to hear your Mandarin today,” says Celia. (May I note, a Chinese man told me on an airplane, “Do you speak Mandarin? Don’t believe what you hear. All Chinese love Americans!”) It has long been a matter of pride to occasionally blend all of these experiences with the best of Western culture, remembering our East-West Center goals.

We are inheritors of Deng Xiaoping’s plan to “Open Up China,” and all who bravely go against the current to welcome American students to China. Our remarkable book is a celebration of raw courage, dedication, dreams, and determination on the part of all participants. Phyllis Case Bennett, the founder of our study program, dared to ask of CAAIC College if they would help her start an exchange program.

Do you agree we have been successful so far in people to people interchange through this rich endeavor? All of us must further develop contacts between America and China, Taiwan or suffer the consequences of lack of bridge building, as demonstrated by weakened diplomacy under this current administration.

I know, Wild Orchid, you agree with this Chinese saying:

Life is short;
Art is long.

Blending cultures, as human beings touch one another’s hearts through art, is splendid, as time inexorably passes.