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Interview with Artist & Calligrapher Si Jie Loo

Si Jie Loo is inspired in capturing the essence of humanity with Chinese Ink.

Si Jie Loo is a Malaysian-Chinese artist who lives and works in Providence, RI, United States. Si Jie studied under the tutorship of Malaysian master ink painter Dr. Cheah Thien Soong. She received honors in Studio Art at Dartmouth College in 2014. After graduating she returned to Malaysia and traveled to China on a travel grant to “merge” her western art education with her Chinese traditional roots in Calligraphy and Ink Painting. As an artist in the diaspora, she is regularly on the move between places, cultures, music genres, and languages. Her practice constantly incorporates new influences and her pieces honor the process of spontaneous, intuitive painting combined with a thoughtful balancing act of ink and colors. She traversed the Tibetan plateau and the Silk Road in Northeast China, reflecting this journey in the exhibit Physical Meditation, held at UNESCO heritage site Penang, Malaysia in January 2018.

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Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a Malaysian-Chinese artist who grew up dancing, drumming, and drawing. From Russian ballet, Chinese dulcimer to African hand drums, I am a multi-disciplinary artist who absorbs and expresses herself through a wide array of art forms. My curiosity and tenacity have led me to study and live in Norway, Thailand, Morocco, Spain, and currently the United States.

She is an eclectic artist with a unique ability to translate cultures visually, whose work reflects her roots in the Chinese diaspora

Ink paintings on xuan paper done during the pandemic

Have you always had clear your career as an artist since your childhood?

No. I was the studious type where my ambition was to explore the world beyond my country. I worked backward by following the footsteps of the seniors ahead of my class to ace in sports, extra-curricular activities, and my grades so that I can get a scholarship to study abroad. However, I have been very artistic since I was very young! Unbeknownst to me, I would use the power of art to rediscover my roots and my traditions when I was studying abroad.

What motivated you to study calligraphy and ink?

When I was in my final year at Dartmouth College completing my studio art major, I noticed that I am very well-versed with water-based painting techniques compared to my peers (we were only taught oil painting techniques in college). I realized my experience of learning calligraphy and watercolor since I was a child has stuck with me, and it is a ‘new’ tool for me to express myself artistically. My graduation thesis was called “Swirling Spirit”, an installation of circular markmakings in ink, natural dye, and watercolor on textile, paying homage to my Chinese traditions of calligraphy and ink. Since then I have continued to dive deeper into the art of calligraphy and ink.

You combine different elements in your artworks: Chinese ink painting techniques, traces of the diaspora, and a culture constantly on the move. How do you find the balance between tradition and innovation?

A musician once told me that there is no tradition without the artist. For a traditional art form to continue, it must go through the artist who is the vessel, who will then reinterpret and express the traditions in his/her unique way. Traditions, too, have always been moving and changing because of the people practicing them at different times.

What do you hope to communicate with your art?

I hope to pay homage with my art to ancient philosophers and artists, whose wisdom has influenced generations after them. I am not complete without my past, present and future. I aspire to create truthfully and authentically and hopefully my art can touch other souls.

Si Jie seeks out her muses in museum collections, sacred landscapes, folk art and employs music, dance, calligraphy, and ink into her artwork

You studied and lived in Norway, Thailand, Morocco, Spain, and now the United States. What life obstacles have traveling helped you strengthen? How did these experiences have enriched your way of creating art?

My travels have helped me gain wisdom, courage, and confidence in my quest of discovering and expressing myself. While most see differences, I see one humanity with beautiful rituals singing the same prayers and praises for beauty, nature, and the cycle of life. My art aims to express that borderless beauty and passion of humanity.

Can you share with us some meaningful memory from your journey through the Tibetan plateau and the Silk Road in Northeast China?

I was utterly taken by the beautiful sacred landscape of the Tibetan plateau, the Gobi desert, the 1600-year-old Buddhist cave paintings, and the devotees at the monastery. I felt the vastness and power of sacred landscapes that I made a whole body of work that is my solo exhibition ‘Physical Meditation’ when I returned.

Anti-Asian hate is not new. Were you surprised by this violence against Asian Americans? What are your feelings during this period?

I have studied the history of Asians in the Americas all the way back to the Gold Rush period, so I am not surprised by the violence against Asian Americans that persists today. While feeling upset, I was also very motivated by the strong voices of Asian people coming together to fight this discrimination.

If hate is a virus, is there any vaccine? Do you think art can help people to fight bias and hate?

Art is very powerful when done right in eliciting empathy and bridging gaps and misunderstanding. We are not that different after all as we are all human. The Poems and stories by MacArthur Genius Ocean Vuong have been very healing to me at this time.

Si Jie’s artistic practice draws from traditional Chinese ink painting techniques, and she frequently ventures on art pilgrimages for inspiration from legendary, ancient locations throughout China

The U.S. celebrates May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Do you believe that this month is a concrete reminder that diversity strengthens? Do Asians have real equal opportunity?

This month is a real platform to highlight and showcase how much we have come and how much further we have to go to achieve real equity. It is a time of reflection against the backdrop of a global pandemic. We have to commit ourselves to work towards equity however long it takes within our field of expertise, in my case, through my voice, my art, my stories.

Photos courtesy of Si Jie Loo

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