When he was a child, Tsai Erh-ping (蔡爾平) was fond of chasing the geckos that populate his hometown of Beigang (北港) in Yunlin County (雲林縣). After catching the small creatures, he would paint their tails in a multitude of colors.
“I was a naughty boy,” he jokingly said last week in an interview at the National Museum of History where his sculptures and jewelry are on display until March 1.
“I would catch the geckos and paint stripes or dab dots onto their tails. That’s how I got my start as an artist. It was out of love — a love for nature,” he said. “As I grew older, the naughtiness disappeared but the love of nature remained.”
Tsai’s fascination with the natural world informed his early experiments making jewelry. He renders the form and spirit of spiders, centipedes, birds and, of course, geckos in carefully crafted brooches, pendants and pins. He later refined his unique and detailed style as a master’s degree student at Parsons School of Design in New York. The sculptures are impressionistic representations of Taiwan’s flora and compliment the jewelry of insects, amphibians and fish.
The aesthetic preoccupations of the three-decade US resident — Tsai usually returns to Taiwan twice a year to hold workshops — fall into the same milieu as a growing number of Taiwanese sculptors, such as Huang Ma-ching (黃媽慶), who look to nature as their muse. But whereas Huang’s medium is wood, Tsai employs porcelain, colored clay, semi-precious stones and metals to make his jewelry and sculptures.
The jewelry pieces on display reveal Tsai as a master craftsman. Whether centipedes crawling over mud, crabs emerging from a hole or a cicada resting on a mangrove’s tangled root, the insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates are all realistically rendered in a rainbow of colors.
WHAT: A Window to a Sculptor’s Dream: Another World of Millefiori Porcelain by Tsai Erh-ping
WHERE: National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館), 49 Nanhai Rd, Taipei City (台北市南海路49號)
WHEN: Until March 1. The museum is open daily from 10am to 6pm, closed on Mondays
ON THE NET: www.nmh.gov.tw
Although the sculptures aren’t as original or spectacular as the jewelry, Tsai’s glazing process makes them unique because the colors — muddy browns, ocean blues, forest greens and fiery oranges — delicately replicate the natural environment in which the crabs, mudskippers and butterflies exist and are emblematic of the multitude and richness of Taiwan’s ecology.
As his mischievous tale of childhood suggests, the 59-year-old Tsai is in every way a character. His speech is a mixture of humorous anecdotes about his youthful exploits and New Age wisdom about the “connectedness” of nature.
“Life is very precious,” he said. “There is no higher or lower level, poor or rich. There is only being respectful — for me, the bug is equally as precious and deserving of respect as people.”
Tsai’s environmental awareness, coupled with a salesman’s gift for storytelling — honed early in his career selling his brooches out of a case in New York’s Central Park and later through his business Jewelry 10 — have served him well over the past few decades and earned him a reputation as a proponent for ecological preservation, though he is not affiliated with any environmental organization or movement. His is more philosophy than activism, a conviction he picked up from his father and one that underpins all his creations.
Tsai said the exhibit is a tribute to two of his formative influences: his father, a well-respected physician who taught him about ecology, and his teachers who initiated him into the deeper mysteries of sculpture and the materials used to create works of fine art. As such, the exhibit is a reflection on his influences and a personal statement of how he feels about Taiwan’s — and by extension, the entire planet’s — natural environment.