The Pursuit of Curiosity: The Art and Adventures of Seth Taylor

Seth Taylor’s studio in Sturgeon Bay seems to belong to many artists. Realistic portraits are scattered around one table alongside caricatures of politicians; several loose line ink drawings of animals – deer, horses, sturgeon – take up an entire wall; a watercolor begins to take shape on an easel near the window; and brightly colored children’s illustrations – dancing bears, smiling mushrooms and animal fingers – alternate on the computer screen.

“As an artist, you’re told to have one answer to ‘What art do you make?'” Taylor said. “I’ve never been able to confine my curiosity to one direction – to my detriment in some ways – but I think it makes things a lot more interesting.”

Passport in hand, Taylor has pursued that curiosity to the far corners of the globe for the past 30 years, since enrolling as a foreign student in Malaysia straight out of high school. It was an experience he found fascinating, liberating and addictive.

“In the U.S., you have certain cultural expectations — things you’re expected to do,” he said. “When I went to Malaysia, nobody knew what Americans were supposed to do, but they also didn’t expect me to be Malaysian, so there’s this space where you’re allowed to be your own culture. You are what you are.’

With this newfound sense of self, Taylor began to receive an art education not through careful planning, but by chance and through her desire and eagerness to learn what she could from whomever she could.

“A lot of artists, when they talk about where they studied art, it’s a list of different institutions, different internships,” Taylor said, “but for me it’s kind of like a list of countries I’ve been to and what art was happening [that] I got there.

First there was an introduction to traditional Chinese ink painting at an artists’ commune in Beijing. At first, Taylor was skeptical.

“I’ve always felt — and part of it was looking at it with uneducated eyes — that Chinese painting always looks the same,” he said. “Like Renaissance art, a kid will look at it and say, ‘It’s just old,’ but in Beijing I started to see artists doing new things with it.”

Taylor added more layers to his education in Vietnam, learning about values ​​and tones from a photocopy artist who worked with charcoal dust on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, where he also learned technical painting skills from a group of artists whose professions included recreating famous European paintings that were sent to China and Europe.

“Another Mountain” by Seth Taylor

“One guy was Van Gogh’s man and he painted Van Gogh’s sunflowers 50 times a week. There would be a guy doing Rembrandts and one doing Monet’s water lilies,” Taylor recalled. “As long as I didn’t get in their way, they were willing to let me hang out.”

He was studying art history when he drove dump trucks to the furthest reaches of Qinghai Province, a remote region of China that is technically closed to foreigners, “but there were so few people—mostly Tibetan yak herders and monks—no one didn’t force it,” he said.

The monks welcomed him into their monasteries, showing him ancient Buddhist art known as Thangka scrolls (google them – they’re amazing) that had to be hidden from the Chinese government.

Taylor’s drawing improved during a calligraphy class in Taiwan, where seating was graded from beginner to advanced. “I never got out of the starter’s seat,” he said with a laugh.

He delved deeper into Thangka painting in India, honed his portrait skills in Japan, and studied life drawing, painting and watercolor in South Korea.

Photo by Brett Kosmider

During those 30 or so years of travel, Taylor made a living primarily by teaching English. In Taiwan, he taught basic English to primary school students and corporate English to the state managers of Microsoft, Christian Dior and Montblanc. He taught Tibetan refugees in India, where he met his wife, Hong Byung Yun. And eventually, he and his wife founded their own language school—the Da Vinci Language Academy—in her native South Korea.

“We focused our school on just elementary,” Taylor said. “Our focus was to make our children exist in English, learn through English. We created a program that fixed all the problems I saw with traditional English education and education in general. It’s been a passion for 13 years.”

During those 13 years—the longest Taylor has lived anywhere since graduating high school—he joined an artist studio, Jankura Artspace. He found a mentor who he credits with “bringing it all together and cementing it into a more recognizable style for me.”

This style was the culmination of years of unconventional education and combining elements of Asian and Western approaches to artwork.

“The basic idea of ​​a lot of Asian art is that you have to practice doing what the masters do for 10 to 15 years. Then, over time, you develop your own style — if you’re lucky,” Taylor said. “The Western approach, especially in modern art, is [that] you should start creating your own stuff and have your own voice right away. There are positives and negatives on both sides.”

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