I first encountered The Mustard Seed Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston after I moved to Portland, Maine, in 2010. Printed by woodblock, it quietly sit in the Scholar Room of the Chinese Section as if it had been patiently waiting for our encounter. The book’s edges have been yellowed and wrinkled with age. Countless artists must have read it and then carried its messages. Above all, I was fascinated by the book’s format of intermixing images and Chinese text.
Then, I ran into The Mustard Seed Garden again in the “Fresh Ink” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2011. A prominent Chinese artist Xu Bing composed a long landscape scroll by carving and printing images from The Mustard Seed Garden. Bing’s creation awakened a lost ancient memory and touched something deep within me. I was captivated by its relevancy to modern life. We, too, are compelled to preserve traditions under threat—this time under threat of consumerism culture homogenizing world cultures.
And so, from 2011 to 2013, I used Chinese ink, brush, and rice paper to create artworks based on The Mustard Seed Garden, and my first solo art exhibit, “Tao-Seeker,” was the result. All this work and practice taught me not only the brush stroke and compositions, but also how to think Chinese in terms of creation. For instance, regarding to the plum painting, The Mustard Seed Garden says: “The symbolism of the plum tree is determined by its chi’i. The blossoms are of the Yang principle, that of Heaven. The wood of its trunk and branches are of the Yin principle, that of Earth.”
As time went on, traditional Chinese art mediums—ink, brush and rick paper—started to feel constraining. “Tao-Seeker” exhibit didn’t provide much feedback or dialogues that I was hoping for. Perhaps this is because I am not living in a vibrant community that practices and appreciates traditional Chinese artwork. If I were in China, it would be much easier to connect with artist communities based on traditional forms. In Maine, I couldn’t even find a framer to frame my ink paintings. Suddenly, I realized that art creation is never a solo act. It takes a village to nurture an artist, ranging from providing art materials, offering framing to setting up art shows.
Of course I could have buckled up and forged on a lone path of traditional Chinese art in Maine, but it would be monologues, not dialogues. It’s not what I am looking forward after a long work day of telecommute.
Besides, I wondered, what does it mean to be a Chinese immigrant who lives in Maine, one of America’s least diverse states? How does my full-time job in the high-tech industry impact my art? How does my marriage with a white American influence my creation? And so another rounds of dialogues with The Mustard Seed Garden began. This time, it’s about connecting the ancient with the contemporary.
Over the past couple of years, I have been consciously adopting modern media while maintaining a strong Chinese accent in art creation. Modern media—such as acrylic, canvas, and mixed media—connects me directly to a modern age and my immediate surroundings. I can exchange creative experience with my fellow artists in person. I can ask questions to working artists at “Artists and Craftsman” store. My artworks fit nicely with other artists in a group show. The conversations on my artwork become more lively and real. In the meantime, one thing remains--Chinese accent. It’s about my deep connection with Chinese history and culture, about telling my stories in the context of Chinese mythology and literature, about capturing the spirit of objects beyond the superficial likeliness…
While I am continuously integrating a diverse range of techniques and materials in my artwork, The Mustard Seed Garden still plays a key role for me artistically and spiritually. It’s my home base where I always feel safe and welcomed after venturing out to the wild world.
In the end, what I create becomes a dialogue between the East and the West, the ancient and the contemporary, just as a Chinese abstract painter Zhao Wou-ki said: “Everybody is bound by a tradition. I am bound by two.”
 Page 404: Mai-mai Sze translation