A Google search, a few YouTube videos and a website brought two cultures together in Silverthorne over the past few weeks, as an art student from Hong Kong traveled halfway around the world for an internship with a local artist.
As a third-year student in scenic arts at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, Lai “Leaf” Yip Tsz was required to work in the professional art field for a month. When she started searching for an internship, she came across YouTube videos of local artist Bonnie Norling Wakeman’s sculptured wall mural process and was hooked.
Michael Betts, senior lecturer in the scenic arts at Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, sent an email to Norling Wakeman on Leaf’s behalf, requesting a partnership.
“It was very exciting to get that letter from Michael,” Norling Wakeman said. “I thought it was so unique and different that someone found my website and was excited enough to come learn. I just did a five-day workshop with students from all over the country, so to have her come a week later was amazing.”
Learning a process
Norling Wakeman reviewed Leaf’s portfolio before considering the project.
“I wouldn’t have agreed to this if she wasn’t a serious art student, if she didn’t have that type of ambition,” she said. “That’s a long way to come, and I knew she was a serious student, which was why I put her to work the minute she got here.”
Leaf said she’d previously taken sculpting classes with clay but had never worked with plaster, carving and molding murals.
“I worked on lots of things,” Leaf said of the projects she began tackling with Norling Wakeman. “We worked on a Keystone condo, the final carving of the relief and coloring. We went to Cool River, in Breckenridge, for the mural and the relief, an aspen tree, the river and the path and some animals like fox and deer. We did three walls.”
“I really overwhelmed her from the minute that she got here,” Norling Wakeman said with a laugh.
A third project, at the home of Bill Wallace, former Summit County commissioner, inspired Leaf’s individual project, a wood-panel and plaster relief of an eagle.
“At the beginning, I wanted to do a landscape, a little landscape relief,” Leaf said. “Because I followed Bonnie to the other place to do the landscape relief, I think I already have the experience of landscape, so I want to focus on an animal, like the eagle. I saw Bonnie’s eagle in that house and I wanted to learn how to craft an eagle.”
The plaster relief process begins with an outline on a wood panel sketched from a reference photo, followed by a first coat of plaster.
“When it dries, we craft the shape of the eagle on the first coat of plaster, and after that, we add the second coat on top of the first coat,” Leaf said. “It’s time to do more details, feathers and the head and the legs, the eagle’s legs. When it’s dry, we need to carve it, sculpt it to put more fine details in.”
Norling Wakeman said the final steps would be to finish the details in the plaster and then color the sculpted plaster to match the wood grain of the background panel.
Learning a culture
Working with a new material and being in a professional environment were both experiences Leaf never had in Hong Kong, and she said she’s learned a lot from her time here. She said there aren’t many people from her academy that come to America to study unless they have relatives here, so her knowledge of America was limited.
“Hong Kong is not like Summit County, where the sky is always very sunny,” Leaf said. “I think the environment is really good for me. And I live with Bonnie.”
Leaf lived with Norling Wakeman for the duration of her stay so they could immerse themselves in each other’s cultures.
“I insisted that she live here while she was here for that reason, so we could enjoy getting to know her better and learning about China and about Hong Kong, really, because that’s so different from China and we did not know that before she came,” Norling Wakeman said. “I’ve been asking a lot of questions about Hong Kong, the history of Hong Kong and China, her family and her experience of arts and school.”
Norling Wakeman said she and her husband, Joe Wakeman, learned more than they ever dreamed possible about Leaf’s home country, and in turn, they took the young artist to the Denver Art Museum and had her try a multitude of activities in Summit County.
“I loved kayaking and hiking,” said Leaf, who also experienced snow for the first time on a hike. “The views here are gorgeous; it’s a really amazing place. I love it here. Summit County is an amazing place.”
The most important part of her experience here was actually living with an artist, Leaf said, because if she had stayed in a hotel, she would have missed out on all of the extra curricular activities she did with Norling Wakeman.
“When we would go hiking, we’d talk about the trees, the environment the natural, real things,” Leaf said. “There’s no environment like this in Hong Kong. It’s a city with many tall and big buildings and less chance to go to the environment for hiking. I think here has given me a lot of ideas, and I think every art student should have their library in their mind. I need to know when I saw this thing; I can draw this thing. The things I create are linked to my real experience. It’s helpful for me to do creation art like that.”
Norling Wakeman said having Leaf in her home the past few weeks has been a gift.
“It’s so fun to learn to see as an artist; we talked a lot about that, that was great. It’s been such a pleasure. I’m going to cry when you leave,” Norling Wakeman said, turning to Leaf. “We never had kids, so we got to have this kid for three weeks that we really enjoyed. … She can bring Summit County home in a way that very few people can with her art talent.”