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Drawing Program Chair Soaks Up Transcultural Experiences on Sabbatical to China

Posted November 17, 2016 in Drawing

When it came time for Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) Associate Professor and Drawing Program Chair Stephen Halko to apply for his first sabbatical, he wasn’t just looking to take some time to focus on his own creative practice; he wanted a life-changing cross-cultural experience.

So during the spring 2016 semester, Halko traveled to Shanghai, China to explore how another culture thinks about, talks about, displays, teaches, and creates art. Like many KCAD faculty, he’d seen firsthand the transformative power of cross-cultural immersion in connecting with the college’s growing international student population, which includes a number of students from China. 

Stephen Halko in ChinaHalko at the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute, one of several institutions he visited during his sabbatical (credit: Claire Halko) 

Just as those students had broadened their perspective in coming to study in the United States, Halko hoped to do the same in traveling abroad. An opportunity presented itself when Xiaolong “Paul” Fang, a 2015 graduate of KCAD’s MFA program who hails from China, contacted him.

“Xialong is well connected in the arts scene in China,” says Halko. “He is also a really strong advocate for KCAD and wants to represent and promote the college as much as he can in China.”

Fang, who in 2014 organized Greetings from the West to the East,an exhibition at the Meilidao International Arts Center in Shanghai that included work from Halko and other KCAD faculty, opened up a number of opportunities for Halko to exchange ideas on creative process and educational philosophy with Chinese students as well as some of the country’s leading artists and academics. 

Stephen Halko in China(above): Halko with KCAD alumnus Xialong Fang (left) and Haifeng Li (right), associate professor and director of the department of fine art at DongHua University; (below): Halko addresses a crowd at the Shanghai International School (credit: Anna Halko)

Stephen Halko in China

Central to Halko’s work is the concept of visual thinking, an approach to creativity that he says “encourages action before reflection.” He often creates non-representational ink drawings as a meditative process. These drawings act as a springboard to the imagery and compositions that become his finished pieces.

In presentations at DongHua University, the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute, the Shanghai Peninsula Art Museum, and the Shanghai International School, Halko explained how he uses visual thinking in the studio and in the classroom. 

Stephen Halko in ChinaHalko speaks to a crowd at the Shanghai Peninsula Art Museum (credit: Anna Halko) 

“The students I spoke to were really interested in how I work as an individual artist and how I handle personal subject matter, because there is a part of their culture that is more focused on the collective tradition,” Halko says. “They wanted to know how I generated my ideas, and also how students at KCAD were taught to ideate as well.”

Halko’s process especially intrigued YouZhang Chen, a highly respected contemporary Chinese artist whose work invokes elements of traditional Chinese calligraphy. Chen joined Halko at the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture institute and spoke about how he uses elements of visual thinking in his own creative process. He then presented a piece that he had created in honor of Halko, and the two artists also created three collaborative works that are now in the institute’s permanent collection.  

Stephen Halko in China(above): Halko (2nd from right) and artist YouZhang Chen (left of Halko) collaborate on an artwork; (below): Piece created by YouZhang Chen in honor of Halko’s visit (credit: Anna Halko)

work by YouZhang

“I felt respected and I felt a general appreciation and inquisitiveness about the West and what we do here as artists and thinkers,” Halko says. “There was a true dialogue happening. I was learning from them and I hope they were learning from me. It was an honor to be there.”

When he wasn’t sharing ideas and experiences, Halko was busy soaking them up. He and Fang visited several museums and galleries in Shanghai and Hangzhou to explore the similarities and differences between Chinese and American institutions. Halko says the exposure to a different place and perspective not only helped him understand Chinese culture more fully, but changed his outlook on life here in the United States as well.

“Being there and seeing the different approaches to architecture, to museum structure, and the differences as well as the similarities, I think I really saw the structure of things back here in the U.S. differently, not so much as being better or worse, but just more aware of the approach.”

Stephen Halko in ChinaHalko with KCAD alumnus Xialong Fang (left) and artist ZhiPing Lu (credit: Anna Halko) 

Halko says the most lasting impact of his trip came from the potential he sees to strengthen the bridges he, Fang, and others at KCAD have built between the college and Chinese artists, educators, and institutions.

“There’s a long line of important and influential people in China who would come over here and participate in an exhibition in a heartbeat, and it’s reciprocal. For instance, the people I met at DongHua University want to exhibit work by KCAD faculty members. They want our students to come over and engage with their students. There’s an enormous opportunity for cooperation and collaboration here.”

Stephen Halko in ChinaHalko meets with students at the Shanghai International School (credit: Anna Halko)

At KCAD, Halko is already leading efforts to take advantage of those opportunities. A KCAD study away trip to Shanghai is being planned for the summer of 2017 that will include a studio class and a class on Chinese literature in addition to a wide range of immersion experiences.

“I want to open doors. I want to bring the artists and scholars I met in China over here, and I want to take our students over there. It will be an incredible experience for students to travel to the other side of the world and experience the culture in Shanghai,” says Halko. “It’s so important to travel and get out of your own mindset for a while.”


See more of Stephen Halko’s work at stephenhalko.com.  

Learn more about study away opportunities at KCAD here.

Learn more about KCAD’s Drawing program at kcad.edu/drawing


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