Me + You = Us

Having been brought up to quickly navigate through different languages and cultures in Asia, North America, and Europe, I found Finland quite the challenging place.  Not only is the language extremely difficult and nothing like anything I have studied, the climate and culture were very exotic to me. 

Taking all of that and put it in context to where I was personally in my life, I felt myself to be far, at the end of the world, and having being able to literally walk across the Arctic Circle, made that point all the more real.  I wanted to created something that would bridge worlds, open space for people to share perspectives and listen to each other through creative outlets.  Art is a language we can all speak and how we understand this language reflects so much of who we are and simultaneously who is communicating with us.  After I came up with the four questions to build the pathfinders off of, I reached out to some schools and everybody was keen to try the mail art exchange.  At the moment, Dear You has had 43 participating schools spanning 23 countries.  As in the artworks, we focus on the process, and let’s see how Dear You continues to transform and change depending on the friendships made from the exchange.

Thinking and doing combined:

When I first started Dear You, I thought about how this mail art exchange could be structured yet welcoming for all parties to share their own subjective perspectives and creative license.  Simultaneously, in a meaningful and dialogical way, how can we listen to what is being communicated? When you receive something in the mail, it is clear who it is for because it is addressed to a particular person or group.  It is for you.  This direct connection also gives you time to perceive and really ponder what is the sender communicating to you.  This space, direct attention to the sender and intention from the receiver, I believe, creates a special and inherent empathetic bond between the friends from different places.  With that in mind, I wanted the pathfinders to be open enough to allow freedom of interpretation, yet specific enough so that all parties involved have an understood common ground for dialogue to flourish. 

I came up with a simple guide to opening up who the artist is to putting all these experiences in context.  The monthly projects (aka pathfinders) usually play around the four following thematic questions: Who am I? Who are you? What kind of environment do we live in? How are we connected?  I saw these questions like a series of concentric circles, starting from the core of your unique breath to your friend from abroad.  As we research our local environment and then receive information about our friend’s environment we can then draw connections between us and them and put all of this in context.  What may seem so far and at times unbelievable, over time becomes closer, tangible, and personal. This process of connecting by stepping out of our bubble is in essence the structure of building empathy.  Each step of the process is valuable in its own right and stands strong alone, but looking at it as a whole can offer a different kind of complexity and added dimension in the meaning making process.

The art technique chosen for the series of four pathfinders would support and blend into the next, creating a chain of connections for one to reflect upon and play with creatively.  For example, self-portrait photography was used for the Who am I? Project.  The artists could choose how they want to be portrayed to their new friends.  What elements are important for them to have in the picture?  What kind of pose encapsulates who they are at this very moment in time? 

When we received the portraits from our friends abroad, we thought asked “What do you think this picture means?”  “What do you think our friend is trying to say with that gesture?”  From that, the friends who received the portrait made a portrait of their friends using tracing technique and light from the window.  Through the process of trying to understand what the picture is conveying, we started to connect with the picture and the person behind the camera. “I like horses too!” “I like to do gymnastics too!” said the 6 year old artists from Your School in Espoo, Finland when they received artworks from their friends in Kontula, Finland.  Utilizing a semiotic approach to unraveling, understanding, and communicating has been very helpful in the development of Dear You as well as, guiding the conversations in the classroom and correspondence between the groups.

Making mail art

All Dear You participating schools and groups are organized to have a Dear You friend in another location.  Each session lasts for four months as to give time for the groups to get to know each other and for the artworks to arrive by post to the destination.  For example, 1st graders in Singapore are paired with 1st graders in Finland. During these workshops the children create their monthly art projects, which are then mailed to their Dear You friends abroad.  The range of projects include environmental art, book-making, installations, collective drawings and scientific experiments.  For example, by creating sound drawings of our environment, we can express identity and share information about world.  I have found that an interdisciplinary and playful approach to concepts such as identity and place  can give more space for other ideas to flow into the picture.

These curated pathfinders allow for experiential learning and encourage the participants to explore and to be inquisitive.   Through making art, collectively discussing their artworks in the class, carefully packaging them to share with their friends abroad, the young artists proudly present their heritage.  At the end of the exchange the works are collected to create an exhibition in the school and online.  Since 2019, Dear You has been extended to homeschoolers.  School, in this context, includes all participants and groups.  The whole school benefits from the artistic exchange as the artworks received from other countries are displayed in the school for everybody to enjoy. 

Reflecting on setting up the space

It amazes me and it is also not surprising at all that when you give somebody space, time, and trust, a volcano of golden ideas and discoveries burst open.  Over the years of working on the Dear You art project, I have noticed that for a positive artistic experience to happen:

  • ● We need space to move around and also space for our minds to feel free of expectations. 
  • ● We need time to warm up our body, to get lost in what we are doing, to get bored, and to get excited with what we have discovered.
  • ● We ultimately need both enough time and space to build trust.  Trust in yourself and your collaborators and trust in your environment. 

All of these elements are interconnected and are on an ever-continuing process to finding their place on your path.  They pertain to you, whether you are a teacher or a student.  We are all in this together and we are all learning from each other and creating side by side.

Life is an inspiration:

Every day is full of surprises and even when I’m on a trusting and sturdy routine, I never really know how one thing leads to another.  I thrive on this balance between spontaneity and stability and try to fuel it into my art projects, which are usually based on creating meaningful connections, dialogue, and awareness.  For the most part of my life, my road has been very curvy and windy, which has led me to live in different countries for various reasons.  My first major transition in my life was moving from Taiwan to the USA when I was 7 years old.  That distance would not keep me apart from everything dear to me.  That is when letter writing became my main channel of communication and the envelope a pocket to challenge depth, weight, and two dimensional artistic forms of expression.

If you would like to start an exchange, I would suggest to start thinking about what is important to you.  Why do you want to reach out to somebody new or learn about something you never knew existed?  I think these will guide your creative development and anchor your journey.  It wasn’t always so easy to get people on board in Dear You or for them to understand how the exchange process works or that we were making process-based arts, which focuses on the journey and not on the final piece.  With that in mind, I always try to make a phone date with the other artist or teacher.  To talk with them and listen to their reasons why they want to join Dear You.  This helped the communication between all participants immensely as we were aware of each other’s expectations and different ways of working.  As with anything, you just have to try and learn as you go, but a little bit of patience and perseverance will really help in the long run.

This year marks the sixth year anniversary of Dear You art project.  Within the past few years we have worked with teachers, artists and young people from all over the world and developed a multicultural program that has proven to encourage children to learn about their peers across the globe, be curious, ask and answer questions about local culture within the global context.  “There is always room for one more!,” as I say because your presence will inspire more creativity, understanding and visions to be realized.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Ages 6-8, Ages 9-12

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