Short Course Review「The Order of Nature: Geometry and Patterns」

2019.3.1

From October 22 to November 2, 2018, Ms. Delfina Bottesini from The Prince's Foundation School of Traditional Arts taught the first course 「The Order of Nature: Geometry and Patterns」 in China Centre.

The following is the complete transcript of the interview for Ms. Delfina Bottesini.

Q: You have previously done a lot of teaching in foreign countries. How does your experience of teaching this course on geometry at the Prince’s School in China differ from your past experiences?

Delfina Bottesini (DB) : Our school teaches different programs in different countries, and I have taught for many years in places like Cairo, Saudi Arabia, South America, really all around the world. And I have also taught before in China, but these were always comparatively shorter courses than this one. So it has been really wonderful for me to be able to spend two weeks with the students here. We have had a very lovely mix of students from different cultural backgrounds, including both Chinese students and Tibetan students, and most of them came with some experience of the arts, whether painting or ceramics. We also had some students coming from an architectural background, so their knowledge and skills were very different. But this was not a problem at all, because we teach very much from the first steps, gradually taking the study of geometry to more complex patterns.

For myself, it has been a really nice experience because whenever I have asked the students to bring in elements and motifs from their own cultures, they have always responded very positively and brought in very beautiful work. So I believe the study of geometry is really something that can be taught in this universal way, and then also allowing the students to bring in their cultural understanding and heritage into it. I personally feel that these two weeks have taught me a lot and surprised me a lot. The students worked really hard. And we really did see a variety of expressions in the work in the end.

Q: After this two-week experience, in what ways do you feel this course can benefit students from China?

DB: From my conversations with the students, and also with some of the teachers here from different universities and the deans of different colleges, I understand that there is always a need for a better integration of design into making. Even if we look at the traditional arts, it is very important for the students to understand where they can find the original sources of inspiration. And also the study of the geometry allows them to perfect their techniques, so they can really bring idea and craft together.

I think that this is also a discipline that can benefit a great many different fields, and it is not a subject that is taught very much in China, from what I understand. Maybe geometry is seen as a western tradition. But it isn’t. It’s very much a universal tradition. So the students sometimes are surprised to find so many elements of Chinese culture within the study of geometry. And thus they feel they can access it so much more easily. So I think this can be a good path.

Also, even for students who are not studying traditional arts and crafts, but are perhaps more involved in the contemporary forms of art, they actually can also benefit from this study because, again, it allows them to understand the relationships with the order of nature, and with harmony and beauty. And these things are needed no matter what art form we are involved in.

Q: Do you feel that this course that can be accessed and understood by students of different backgrounds and levels?

DB: As teachers we do want to understand the students’ level and be prepared so that we can approach one level or another, and there’s a methodology for that. The course we just did was only an introduction to geometry, so it makes things easier. So that means that the students can come from very many different levels, and whether they have done arts before or not, they can access and understand this information. However, we also find that sometimes the students from different cultural backgrounds will also have different levels of study from their own culture: perhaps their tradition of study approaches mathematics, or even geometry or drawing, in completely different ways from the way we do in the West.

But what I have found especially in these two weeks, is that geometry can be completely accessible no matter what type of curriculum the students have come from. When we are talking about something like mathematics, there will be a more western approach, and then a more eastern, Chinese or Tibetan approach to the study of number. And these can be very different from one another. But the language of geometry is visual, which means that the students can access the understanding of number without prior knowledge of a specific system. So that’s one advantage. Something we often tell our students is that Plato was convinced that there was no requirement of education for a human being to access geometry. This means that any person from any level of education, even a child, will be able to access geometry, because it is such a natural system. And I do find that when we teach students from different cultures this is very visible, that no matter where we come from, or what level of our study is, we can do this work easily.

Q: Could you talk about the way this course and other courses in the Prince’s School view the relationship between knowledge and practice?

DB: We absolutely believe that knowledge and practice have to go hand in hand, and that knowledge is increased through practice. We have to understand things through doing them, making them, because there is obviously the knowledge of the hands, the knowledge of making. And as we make these things, that tradition with which we are engaging practically will speak back to us and we will be able to understand and really align with it, and that in turn expands the intellectual understanding. So it is always better to match the two, so you that have intellectual understanding together with the knowledge of the hands; and this will be very inspirational for the heart. And so the two make a perfect match.

That’s why we always recommend to our students that they don’t begin by reading a lot about the subject, or access it all through words, or engage in a lot of study. Of course that is fantastic in its way, but it has to go hand-in-hand with knowing how to do things, knowing what the drawing means, because the drawing teaches us. It is the best teacher, really, more important than the teacher who stands at the front of the classroom. As a practitioner myself, I find that it is only when I am drawing things over and over again, that a little door of understanding opens up just a bit wider all the time. And then when I read the books afterwards, I can make connections much more easily, and I can understand what these people from ancient times were talking about. Otherwise it would feel very distant to me. So that is the link. That’s why we always tell our students, we are not here just to advise: our methodology is to bring the two elements of knowledge and practice together.

Student:

I came to Beijing from Tibet in 2012, and I had never studied arts and crafts before. This is my first real engagement with art. Through this course of study, I have gained a whole new understanding of geometry. Geometry is the language of nature; it is manifested in the world of nature, and also within our everyday lives. It also can be found in Tibetan architecture, clothing and other areas of our culture. While studying this course I was particularly excited to encounter geometric patterns that were familiar to me. In the past, my main interest was in literature, but now I am expanding my interests to include geometry and design as well.

Student: 

I’m an architect, and I found the geometry course much more interesting than I expected. It combines concepts related to the cosmos, celestial bodies, the human world and myraid other things. At the same time, learning to draw the patterns by hand also stimulated my creativity. 

The course also uses a very special perspective. Traditional architectural studies focus more on mathematical calculations, not the deeper theories and principles. Through my studies here, I have come to understand that geometry is not only about mathematics, but also about understanding principles of aesthetic beauty and cosmology. For example, I previously learned about the principles of proportion from books, such as which proportions were most ideal; but now I have learned the reasons for this from studying the source.

I am already planning that, after these two weeks of study are over, I will design a geometry chart so that I can refer to it when I am working. I think the transition from studying the course syllabus to integrating what I have learned into my own investigations will be quick and natural, and I also will be able to make more effective use of my previous knowledge and expertise.

Student:

I am 23 years old, and a potter. In the traditional method of study, we follow the teachers’ instructions on how to produce works based on the patterns they provide. As our study goes deeper, we can start to create our own designs. Normally the path of development is to first observe and copy the established pottery patterns and designs, and then gradually, through constant practice and trial and error, begin to create innovations in our own work. 

After this two-week course, I have learned both how to draw patterns and how patterns develop and evolve over time. These principles can be applied directly to my own pottery designs. Our instructor is a potter herself, and she has demonstrated for us the many benefits of applying geometry to pottery-making, and also how these are two very complemenatary disciplines.

Student:

I work in the new media industry. Often times it is about speed, not accuracy, and our way of thinking has also become more and more fragmented as a result However, geometry requires accuracy and order. Only if you do every step right, can you achieve the right result. 

After studying this course in geometry I feel: Geometry is everywhere. Now whenever I walk on the street, I automatically begin looking for geometric shapes, trying to find the order within the chaos. This has given me a completely new way of thinking about the world and the cosmos.

Geometry is a way of knowing the world. In this course, the instructor mentioned the traditional Eastern notion of “heaven, earth and man”, which can be interpreted through geometry. This is very inspirational. In the conventional understanding, Chinese culture is unconcerned about the notion of geometry. I hope to find the common ground between the East and the West through this course.

Student:

I am 23 years old. I have been learning Thangka painting for eight years. For me, this geometry course has been very refreshing and inspiring. By studying geometry, I can find many different patterns, which can become a reservoir for my artistic creation.

In the past, when we would draw bodhisattvas or guardian kings, we would always refer to the Measurement Sutra and to existing patterns and designs. The study of geometry encourages me to create patterns from the very beginning, which can then be added later to Thangka designs, such as the decorative patterns of the altar. Now every week, my colleagues and I attempt to design geometric patterns to see which are suitable for Thangkas. We hope that in the future we can expand our practice and create new works.