Spotlight on Ming Chen: Building a bridge
By Gina Gareri-Watkins
Paper sculptures fashioned from bright white paper balance on the sill of Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies Ming Chen’s garden-level window in KSU’s College of Arts, while another group is perched on the uppermost surface of the bookshelf above her desk. At first glance, they seem a curious assortment, but on closer examination one realizes that there is an underlying theme to the collection. Classic examples of Chen’s creative approach to student projects, the sculptures are actually costume models that all evoke a particular time period or ethnic wardrobe. It was the one that looked strikingly like a Kabuki costume with its broad sash, cumberbun and pleated fan that gave the group away.
Chen loves a challenge, and the paper sculptures are just one of many she offers students in her visual imagination class. “I wanted a project to release their imagination. I like my students to have some fun and at the same time learn something,” explains Chen. The project requires students to research time periods or a culture’s ethnic costumes, and distill their essence into a three-dimensional project that can stand on its own. Appreciating diverse cultures and capturing the essence of a creative project is what Chen does well.
Born in Shanghai, China, Chen employs her cross-cultural education and professional experience in nearly every project she undertakes. Chen graduated as China’s first Master of Fine Arts degree recipient in stage design and theory after receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Shanghai Theatre Academy, one of only two theater colleges in China at the time. Chen also received a Master of Arts in theatrical production from the University of Pittsburgh with an emphasis on costume design and theatre history and criticism, and after graduation was well on her way to establishing herself in both set and costume design. Chen landed positions with the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Institute in Washington, D.C., and at the State University of New York at Buffalo before eventually landing at Kennesaw’s College of the Arts in a tenure-track position. Professor Chen specializes in scenic and costume design in the KSU Department of Theatre and Performance Studies.
Chen lectures on Asian theatre and teaches classes in basic design, design skills and visual imagination. The visual imagination class is a requirement of all department majors regardless of theatre, performance studies or dance affiliation because, as Chen explains, “It teaches students that it’s a collaborative process regardless of discipline.” Chen’s students are as much an inspiration to her as she is to them, and it was her love of a challenge and a student need for better textbooks in class that led to Chen’s current side-project, a book on design, “Visual Literacy for Theatre." “The book grew out of my conversations with students. Their questions about design made me think of how to better explain and answer their questions,” says Chen. “Most classes use a book either for an art major, which emphasizes 2D design, or a theatre design major, which is too technical,” explains Chen, “so this book will be one that teaches the visual language to communicate your theatrical ideas.”
Chen devotes a unit in her upcoming textbook to examining the unifying principles of design. Derived from her long study of design and the effectiveness of the masterpieces, Chen asks her students to challenge traditional thought about the rules of design. “To me,” Chen explains, “art is everything but following the rules, so why teach rules? If you want to break the rules, you need to at least learn them. The rules are not set by one person or two—they are the result of studying the masterpieces and the underlying techniques that formed them.”
Being a master of design and collaboration, Chen designs sets and costumes for the dance and theatre programs, as well as collaborating with the visual arts department. Sitting at her desk, Chen fans out renderings for an upcoming dance production that will feature 30 dancers. Chen is doing both sets and costumes, and her delicate line drawings of figures with their proposed costumes are striking in their technique and materials. Chen’s work always reflects and embraces the valuable differences and contributions from her cross-cultural exchange and training, and it’s reflected in the uniqueness of her designs. With 17 years of experience teaching at KSU, Chen is now tenured and has seen staff and student numbers grow along with the arts program itself.
With Chen’s educational and professional background, it’s understandable that she takes a visual approach to all her academic and collaborative projects. Chen uses a line drawing template exercise for her costume design class that has proven popular every time it is taught. The exercise provides students with a pre-drawn mannequin so students can focus on clothing the model rather than drawing it. “This project is very effective,” says Chen. The students, “learn how to build a bridge to express their ideas, and that really builds confidence.” Her student assignments all seem to carry two goals: to help students learn about the arts and build their self-confidence. The template exercise is just one of many that Chen blends into her confidence-building approach towards teaching. “That is the work our teachers need to do. Their confidence is built up, and they want to do so much more.”