Paint the Town

Three weeks in Taiwan already! Somehow it feels both like it’s all passed in the blink of an eye, and like we’ve been here for years. In all the excitement of school and settling in and weekend adventures, I’ve hardly had time to talk about the real reason we’re here in Toucheng: the Toucheng Art and Culture Festival!

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we were first invited to Toucheng so I could write some articles about the festival and the town itself. Since the theme of this year’s festival revolves around the town’s international connections, that has also meant meeting some of the amazing artists and entrepreneurs from around the world who have made a home in Toucheng. About a dozen foreigners are involved with the festival in some way or another, but the first we had the pleasure of meeting was Pipi.

Pipi is an artist and writer from Argentina who moved to Taiwan about seven years ago, and has been living in Toucheng with her husband and son for the past year or so. She will be lending her artistic talents to the festival, but she’s also been doing plenty of other work in the community with Yulun and Ren-Hong outside of that. Our very first week in Taiwan, we got the chance to dive headfirst into some of the work they’ve been doing ahead of the festival.

About a dozen students and friends of Yulun and Ren-Hong’s met us bright and early on a Thursday morning for a workshop hosted by Pipi and Yulun. We didn’t know exactly what to expect at the time, but we soon realized that we were in for a very eventful and richly creative day.

All through the streets and alleys of Toucheng, you can find murals and paintings and other works of art. Many of them were created by a local artist named Mr. Martin, who worked for decades as an animator at Disney, but plenty of other muralists have lent their talents to the town as well. The plan for the day’s workshop would be to tap into this local tradition and create a mural of our own. A pretty tall order, considering most of us in attendance had hardly touched a paintbrush since elementary school, but with Pipi as our guide, we were willing to give it our best shot.

The idea was to get connected with the local artistic history, so we would be drawing inspiration from poetry written by people who had lived in Toucheng. Pipi passed out slips of paper with passages from some of her favorite poems and helped Ryan and I translate ours. Mine read something like “as far as your eyes can see,” and Ryan’s included the characters for “mountains,” “phoenix,” and “mountaintop.” Using these passages, we were tasked with creating AND illustrating something entirely new. It could be a simple sentence, another poem, a memory, a fable—anything that sparked our creativity!

It was a bit of an intimidating task at first, but with such an enthusiastic group, it was impossible to be self-conscious for long. We went around the table and each shared what we had created: stories of family farms, of watching sunrises over the coast, of nature and travel and home and a chicken who turned into a phoenix.

When we had all presented, we were given the most challenging task yet: pick our favorite part of each illustration, and combine them into one single, gorgeous mural! Again, a seriously tall order for a group of people without any formal artistic training. But the point of the workshop was to emphasize both collaboration and free-flowing creativity, so, as Pipi kept reminding us, there was no wrong way to go about it. As long as we were working together and creating something we were all excited about, it would be a success!

It took most of the day, but eventually we arrived at the perfect design. It was late afternoon by then, but we all grabbed some buckets and paintbrushes and followed Yulun to a spot along Old Street, where a local family offered us the use of their wall for our mural. Right next to a mural by Mr. Martin!

Even with eight of us painting our hearts out it was still a long, hard afternoon of work in the sun, but in the end, the results were definitely worth it. Not bad for a group of novices! Though it definitely helped having a great teacher leading the way.

That’s the festival mascot, So Cool Grandpa, riding on the phoenix’s back!

What a way to be introduced to Toucheng! Less than a week in town, and already we were given this incredible opportunity to really get involved with the local community, and to leave something behind that generations of Toucheng residents will be able to enjoy.

More than anything, that’s what we’ve come to love about this town and all the people we’ve met here. Not only are they deeply connected with their local community and history, they’re so ready and willing to show others what makes it special. Where else could you find someone willing to hand over a whole wall of their home to a group of young people, no questions asked?

And when it comes down to it, that’s really what this festival is about: showcasing the best this community has to offer, both for the sake of the people who already love Toucheng and the people who will soon learn to. When we first arrived, we came as friends and colleagues, ready and willing to help out with Yulun and Ren-Hong’s mission however we could. But after this, we were made into true believers. We feel so lucky to be part of a community like Toucheng’s, and with the art festival creeping closer, we can’t wait to see what new opportunities the town will have in store!

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