Renowned Chinese Painters Come to The Claremont Colleges as Envoys for the Arts

The Benjamin Z. Gould Center for Humanistic Studies sponsored a seminar on Chinese painting and calligraphy during the spring semester of 2011, inviting Er Tai and Maya Gao to teach Chinese painting and calligraphy.

Born near Nanjing in 1935, Er Tai is an adamant writer, reformer and proponent of human rights. In the face of constant opposition from the Communist government, he challenged the prevailing stance on aesthetics and objectivity. As a result, he was sentenced to three years of hard labor in 1957; the first of a series of sentences and prohibitions from writing or publishing his work. He and Maya escaped to Hong Kong in 1992 before continuing to Las Vegas, Nevada where they would live in exile. Finally free from the threat of imprisonment and censorship, the Gaos were able to flourish in a life of scholarship.

Just last year, the Athenaeum held an exhibit, presenting samples of the Gaos’ paintings. (Read more.) In keeping with their dedication to teaching, they were truly excited to have the opportunity to follow their artwork to Claremont McKenna and teach students how to paint.

The Gaos took great pleasure in teaching those students who accepted the challenge their class presented. “The enrolled students none of whom were art majors differed in their backgrounds and levels of familiarity with Chinese art, but they all showed a perseverance and dedication that took us by surprise” they explain. The students, staying true to the ingenuity that brought them to The Claremont Colleges, were able to fulfill their creative curiosities by undertaking their own projects. “Students would come to our office every day of the week for individual practice and tutoring, and it was a great satisfaction to see them so engaged. We were particularly impressed and touched by the creative accomplishment of some of the final projects, where our students produced compositions of their own devising.”

What is most amazing about this duo is that Er Tai speaks no English. Maya has a greater understanding of the language but she is not fluent either. Yet, as a testament to their talents as instructors, they are able to clearly communicate with their students.

Robert Faggen, director of the Gould Center and the Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves Professor of Literature, remarks that “the Gaos are among China’s greatest artists and their abilities as teachers are profound. They are dedicated to the advancement of their students’ ability to create art and are willing to overcome immense language barriers to see this come to fruition.”

The students themselves were not short of praise for the passion the Gaos imbued in their teaching. Jessica Cheng ’12 is grateful to have had the opportunity to both grow as an artist and interact with a pair of remarkable instructors. “Mr. Gao was truly an amazing teacher. Although there were definite language barriers, his ability to help students create art by visually teaching them was amazing every single class, everyone was awestruck by the end of the demonstration; it was always amazing to see what he could create in such a little amount of time.”


Kevin Amirdjanian ’14