Interview with Brendon Chen

Painting, singing and dancing are some of the oldest forms of human expression. While each of them can be viewed through an academic lens, only two are considered entertainment in Taiwanese society according to Brendon Chen, founder of the Escape Artist. “Nowadays, in modern society, we still do singing and dancing as entertainment, but most of the people [have forgotten] that painting is fun,” he told me over a cup of coffee. Chen believes he found the solution to this dilemma when he opened the Escape Artist.

The Escape Artist’s slogan “The Art of Paintertainment” is a pithy summary of Chen’s long term vision of reintroducing painting as less an esoteric practice and more a form of every day entertainment. Teaching visitors and customers goes against the Escape Artist philosophy—this isn’t a space where one pays for tutelage, rather it is a space for amateurs and experts to gather with their friends to connect with others, and themselves, through art. To that end, the studio includes a place in the back, filled with rustic benches where friends can gather and drink coffee while their paintings dry.

Chen found that people who painted without pressure or critique, who painted with those whom they felt comfortable around, they would able to realize their own creativity. Too many people deny their own creativity because they view artistry beyond their grasp, but allowing them to come and splash any color they wish on a canvas teaches them that creativity is inborn. Moreover, the creativity that comes from this painting is more than art, more than even entertainment; it is a way to communicate with the self.

It’s unsurprising that someone who seeks to promote such a vision would connect with Red Room. After being introduced to Red Room by co-founder Ping Chu, Chen has continued to attend and support Red Room events, speaking at Red Room’s Aside in 2013 and sponsoring canvases, easels and paint for Red Room’s annual live art events. To Chen, Red Room and the Escape Artist hold similar dreams of people truly expressing and understanding themselves and each other. Both the Escape Artist and Red Room allow people to “enjoy some wine, the company of a friend, and expressing [themselves]” and he hopes more people will find enjoyment in these simple pleasures as the Escape Artist and Red Room become more prevalent.

To learn more about the Escape Artist, and their connection with Red Room, check out the interview below.

What is the philosophy behind the Escape Artist?

We believe that painting is one of the oldest, and most important, forms of entertainment for human beings. Nowadays in modern society, we still sing and dance as entertainment but most people [have forgotten] that painting is fun. They view painting as an academic thing, especially in Taiwan. People here don’t go to museums or galleries to view paintings. They think it has nothing to do with their lives.

We started the Escape Artist not as an art space but as an entertainment place. Just like we go to KTV to sing, we go to night clubs to dance, we come here to paint.

Long term the reason we started the Escape Artist is we want more people to get to know themselves, so they will choose something they like and not something the media tells them they should like.

Painting is very special. It’s a unique form of expression because it’s the only one where you can receive [what you create]. It’s a self-communication process: you get to know yourself better through painting because you can see what you create.
Through painting people will feel more comfortable about themselves; then they will feel more comfortable with their surroundings, too. It’s very important that the people are willing to step out first.

If more people experience painting, I’m sure they’ll appreciate art more. Since art is part of their life there is a bigger change they will go to galleries to enjoy looking at paintings, buy paintings or they might actually create a painting.

I think in a sense you sort of stepped out to start this business. What was that process like and was there a moment when you knew it would work?

I always had faith that it was going to work, but I have to admit that it was harder than I thought it would be, much, much harder.

I still remember the night before all the investors started wiring the money into the account. It was the first time I couldn’t sleep in my life. Before the Escape Artist, I didn’t have any staff or any investors to report to, so it was really a lot of pressure.

In the end, I decided I still wanted to do it. I always had faith it was going to work.

How did you come up with this idea? What was it that sparked your inspiration?

I studied jewelry design in Milan and I was a musical actor so when I came to Taiwan people always introduced me as their artsy, creative friend. I would say “You’re creative, too”. They would say “Trust me I am not.” They have no confidence in their creativity, but arguing with someone whether they are creative or not is like arguing whether they are a ghosts or God. They won’t believe it unless they experience it.

So my ex-girlfriend and I started to seek out a way for them to experience this. We did some research [on painting] and realized it’s entertaining, it’s fun and it’s relaxing.

It’s kind of a social activity because, while you’re waiting for the paint to dry, you get to talk to people and when you’re painting a lot of ideas may come up.
If you’re cooking, if it’s not delicious then it’s not delicious. If you’re making pottery, if it leaks then it leaks. If you’re gardening then the plant might die. In the end no one can fail at painting. Everyone has a different style, no one is better than anyone else.

Is it, to an extent, a cultural thing in Taiwan, this lack of confidence in creativity or this assumption that you have to be trained to be creative? Did you open this, in a sense, to shift the culture? Have you seen any sort of change since you’ve opened this business and if so how?

More than eighty percent of the people who come here the first time don’t believe they can paint. That’s also why most of our customers have been brought by people who’ve already been here.

In Chinese we have this saying “I don’t have an artistic cell in my body”, but the truth is every cell of human beings is artistic. It’s in our genes, so there’s no way anyone is not artistic. Once they start painting they realize that.
There was a girl who came with three of her friends that didn’t believe she could paint, so she insisted on not painting. She sat [at the table], drank coffee and watched them. After two and a half hours– the other three girls had been laughing and splashing paint on each other– she somehow decided she wanted to paint. The other three girls were like “We’re almost done, we’re about to leave.” That girl was like “I don’t care, I want to paint.” So then it was her friends sitting at the table and drinking coffee. After two hours the girl started to scream “I can’t believe I painted this! There’s no way this is my painting. I painted this!” She kept walking away from the painting because she couldn’t believe it. Eventually I had to stop her from falling down the stairs. We don’t teach them here so she knew one hundred that the painting was created by her.

This kind of magic happens every day. I guess that’s the effect we want.

You don’t teach here. Is that explicitly against your philosophy?

The thing is that if someone made a painting and there’s a mountain and a grass field and a sky. Maybe they think the sky is a little bit empty so they ask me “Do you think I should add something to the sky?”. If I say yes then there are two results. First, they like the result and will think “Brendon is the master. He told me to do this and the picture is awesome” so it’s my credit, not theirs.
If they don’t like the result they’ll think “Oh, even though Brendon helped me, I still can’t do it.” When someone has no confidence that’s what they will do. No matter what they still think they can’t do it, but if I don’t have any influence on their painting, they will know one hundred percent it’s from them.
The most important part is we want them to know one hundred percent that everything is from their heart, that they can’t deny that’s their creativity.
Also, if it’s your first time you won’t know your style. If I teach you, you’ll copy my style and probably you will delay the process of finding your own for many years.

You announced at the RR that you were going to open this business?

Yes, when we started it we told them it would happen in the next week

You also spoke at an Aside in 2013.

Yes, we spoke about creativity.

How did you first get involved with the RR? What drew you to it?

The Escape Artist is more a social responsibility for me. I can’t say it’s not a business, it has to be a business in order to keep itself sustainable, but our goal is to have the most influence while making money not making money while having some influence.

We knew Ping Chu [the co-founder of Red Room] for many years. We consulted Ping because he’s a successful businessman and he has a business a good purpose, and that’s what we want to do. So Ping asked us to share it at Red Room and that’s how we go to know Red Room.

Now, when there’s something we can do to help Red Room we try help Red Room too.

After that initial introduction what is it about the RR that made you want to continue the partnership? What is it that you like about the RR?

I like to read a lot and, especially when I’m speaking in Mandarin, in a lot of people’s minds I’m a dreamer. I’m idealistic. People will say “people don’t talk like this anymore”, [but they do at Red Room].

One thing I like about red room is that it encourages people to use poetry. They read poems, they write poems. Around that they have singing, literature and sharing.

After sharing poems and literature and song, Red Room began to involve more art—like at Artists Break the Mold. Of course it has something to do with painting, so we got involved.

Stage Time & Wine’s slogan encourages people to listen to others. When someone is sharing you don’t talk about your thing, you listen to what he’s about to share. That’s also something I think is very important nowadays.

We take different approaches to expose as many people to this kind of atmosphere that’s not so realistic or capitalistic. Not just talk about stuff but also talk about what’s inside of you, what you want to say. It’s not about performance, but about expression. Red Room and the Escape Artist encourage people not to meet someone’s expectations—not their boss, not their frienda, not society’s– but to explore who they are and what they like. That’s why we’ve always worked together.

Is there a memory you have of attending or a time when EA and RR collaborated that really stands out?

Actually the first time I went to Red Room, Manav read a poem he wrote. Itgave me tons of goosebumps. That was the first time I’d heard someone reading a poem to me, usually because I’m the only one who reads poems among my friends, but reading a poem from a book is very different from someone reading it to you. You could tell Manav liked poetry when he read it. I guess it makes a difference, you can feel that he’s passionate about writing and literature.

I don’t say that because he’s one of the leaders of Red Room. The first time I went to Red Room I didn’t know who he was.

I think that’s the kind of influence Red Room can have on a lot of people. Of course I know a lot of people might not feel it because they might not be ready to do it but eventually they’ll join this kind of event more.

That’s why I think Artist Break The Mold and [the upcoming] Artist Bridge The Gap is the kind of big event that can influence more people, just in one day! That might draw other people to RED Room and I think it will change their lives.

Leah List is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s Political Science and International Studies program. She is an aspiring writer, researcher, human rights advocate and a believer in the importance of storytelling. She currently resides in Tianmu. In her free time, she can be found at the Red Room where she volunteers.

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