Zhou Mei-chun: creating a world with cut and paste

Chinese name: 周美純
Born: 1945
Birthplace: Miaoli County (Northern Taiwan)

The noise of children fills the big campus. “Hello principal! Hi principal!” can be heard here and there. The place is Wenhua Elementary School in Miaoli City and the principal was the always-smiling Zhou Mei-chun. Born in the countryside of Tongluo Township of Miaoli County in 1945 and blessed with a pair of skillful hands, Zhou is known for her colorful and elegant fabric collages. To see one is to want to hold onto it and cherish it forever.

Fond of painting since childhood, Zhou Mei-chun began her work in fabric art ten years ago. “I remember glancing at a pile of laundry by the washer. The scattered patches of color and the rhythm of the patterns at that instant formed an interesting design, indolent like a noblewoman coming out of a bath, with a bit of worn sexiness. It was absolutely beautiful.” Being inspired, she began to cut scraps of fabric into little animals, women of different eras, and motifs from indigenous or Hakka daily life, pasting them on cards and adding a written sentiment. She gave these cards to teachers and students from her school at the time. To her surprise, the gifts proved so popular she had to keep on making them. From there, she plunged right into the world of fabric art.

Later down the line, greeting cards became too small a canvas for what Zhou hoped to achieve. She found a picture framer who had similar tastes in art and began creating larger pieces of textile art. She said: “Creating a collage with fabric is just like painting, except the brushes and colors are replaced with scissors and glue.” She often sits back and stares at an ordinary scrap of fabric for some time, imagining the world of possibilities inside, before she picks up the scissors and creates the piece she envisioned in one go. She likes to complete the piece in one fell swoop, and she seldom fails. Her respect for her materials can be seen in her works; even threads are put to good use as a metaphor for “The Entanglement of Life.” The same cloth is reused in different pieces to different effects. Discarded scraps achieve a new life in her hands. She believes everything has its purpose and even the tiniest bit of textile has its function if it’s put in the right place. “Doing what can be done with what’s available” and creating endless variations with colors, patterns and materials are what give Zhou the greatest pleasure.

When she was working at Zhaonan Elementary School, an official from Miaoli’s Department of Education visited and saw her works hanging on the wall of the principal’s office. Out of curiosity, the official asked about them and was surprised to hear that Zhou had created them by hand. Fueled by the official’s praise and encouragement, Zhou organized a fabric art exhibit with other teachers and students. Feedback on the show was further encouragement for her to carry on. In 2001, on the invitation of the Miaoli County Cultural Bureau, she held her own first exhibition entitled “Fibers, Beauty and Spirit” – Zhou Mei-chun Original Fabric Collage Exhibit. This exhibit was her official debut in the local art scene. Since then, she has been devoted to promoting textile collage through exhibits and seminars, fostering the art in her local area as well as supporting its development elsewhere.

As she walks through Wenhua Elementary School, it is obvious that the interactions between the children and their principal are spontaneous and close. All over the campus, Zhou’s creative touch can be seen. She expressed she’s always pressed for time these days. “Other people have 24 hours each day. I have to pack in 48 hours ,” she said. Besides handling the school’s administrative matters, big and small, she had to tend to the backyard vegetable garden before it gets dark. Apart from her devotion to caring for the plants, shealso has a soft spot for rocks. A plain-looking rock in the garden can become a unique decorative item under her skillful hands.

At home, Zhou is master of the kitchen, all while looking after her grandchildren and mother-in-law, who’s over 90 years old. When it’s finally all quiet in the deep of the night, she brings out her toolbox of tailor’s chalk, scissors, glue and fabric scraps, and begins to shear, glue and assemble under the light. She gallops through the vast landscape of her imagination, pasting bits and pieces of everyday life into the picture. “Fabric collages allow scraps to have a different form of artistic expression. It can be extremely artistic. It can also be very accessible.” In her world, everything is imbued with life. She hopes that others will join her in exploring fabric art, mastering the Midas touch, and experiencing the beauty of art.