By Clare Morin
For Australian artist Tricia Flanagan, Portland offers international arts students an oasis of space and fertile grounds for inspiration.
It’s a chilly evening in March as Tricia Flanagan stands in front of a packed crowd at Maine College of Art’s
Osher Hall and leads the audience on a journey from Australia to Germany, Japan and Hong Kong. She discusses her career in public art that has fused environmentalism with community, storytelling and super-computers.
This Australian artist—who heads the Wearables Lab at the Academy of Visual Arts
(AVA) at Baptist University in Hong Kong—has come to Portland as part of a new exchange agreement between MECA and the AVA. Flanagan has just four days to commune with the students and faculty, lead this public lecture, and explore Portland’s rich art scene—all of which she does with astonishing energy as well as managing to squeeze in a mystical run-in with a snowy owl at Fort Williams.
“What I really like about MECA is how it really stands alone,” Flanagan says via Skype from Hong Kong a month later. “MECA isn’t part of a bigger university lost on a campus somewhere. It really has a sense of identity and autonomy and within that building; everyone seems to know everyone—yet it is big enough to have lots of great facilities. Everyone is in this one big building, looking into this wonderful area of art.”
Flanagan says she saw curious connections emerge between Hong Kong and Portland during her stay: both are at their roots fishing communities with hundreds of islands in the surrounding seas. MECA occupies the historic Porteous Building—which was selected as one of only 24 projects to participate in the inaugural Energy Star Showcase Building program by the Environmental Protection Agency. The AVA occupies a stunning, former British Royal Air Force Officers’ Mess campus in Kowloon, which won an honorable mention in the 2009 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage. Both schools have approximately 500 students—and with English being the language of instruction at the AVA with the city’s colonial history, a seamless transition awaits Portlanders heading East.
Flanagan’s visit also had an auspicious sense of timing. MECA has recently launched a major in textile and fashion design and Flanagan runs the all-new Wearables Lab in Hong Kong. Wearables is a new field that merges fashion with computer science and coding, and Flanagan is making a name for herself due to her instinct to fuse traditional art and craft practices with cutting-edge technology. She is as comfortable with a loom as LED lighting, and brings a rare sustainable and environmental consciousness to the field.
“For me, it’s all technology, the old and new technology,” she says. “But there is this grey area: the experience of sitting at a computer screen in a darkened room tethered to a power point has not been very helpful to our bodies. I think it has let us reflect on the fact that there are all sorts of other knowledge than just words on a screen. There is this embodied knowledge.
“I’m very interested in looking at traditional arts and crafts and techniques from artisans and then thinking about the knowledge that’s in there, and how we can intake new sorts of technologies, so we have that same very nuanced, very expressive experience. If you see a sculptor work or any crafts person, someone who can knit very well, it comes very naturally through the body, and it turns the mind off. That’s what I want with my relationship with my computer.”
A new edge for students
In some ways, Flanagan’s practice of melding the organic with the digital is nicely mirrored in the AVA-MECA partnership—Portland is one of the greenest cities on the planet and Hong Kong one of it’s most futuristic.
“Hong Kong is really fast-paced, everything is close by and people love their fashion,” says Flanagan. “You can find streets full of buttons, streets full of ribbons, streets full of electronic gadgets and labor is not so expensive so things can be manufactured. For artists from the United States coming into Hong Kong on this exchange program, the availability of material is just awesome. And for the Hong Kong students going to Portland for this exchange, it’s all about space. They can actually collect stuff around them and start working with a library of materials. A whole different aesthetic develops around that.”
The relationship with the AVA is part of MECA’s Year in China where they start relationships with art academies in Greater China. (And a disclaimer: I have helped to work on this partnership with my part-time role with Suzanne Fox at Fox Intercultural Consulting—who has advised MECA through the project.)
Soon after Flanagan left, in mid-April MECA welcomed another incoming delegation from China—this time from Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts (XAFA). On April 14-16, four educators from the academy traveled to the U.S. to spend time in the college, meet students and faculty, and learn about Portland’s artistic community.
Flanagan says that these international student exchanges are bringing a new edge to art students. “In Hong Kong, our students are coming back with their grades going up 15 percent because they come back with a new maturity,” she says. “They come back and look at their own city with new eyes.”
About the author
is a freelance arts writer who is currently editing the 2014 edition of the Time Out Hong Kong Art Guide from her nest in the West End of Portland. She also works part-time as the Director of Arts & Cultural Programs at Fox Intercultural Consulting