Arts Festival weekend: Palm flowers make Jean Yao's art bloom

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By Jenna McKenna

"First you should find something you really like to do. Then later you should work to refine your technique."

Fiber weaving artist Jean Yao tells young artists that the most important thing they can do is find a form or expression they love to work with. Once they find something they love, they'll find a way to get good at the execution.

Yao, born in Taiwan and trained in Japan in the art of ikebana - flower arranging - says she came to her present media of weaving palm fiber baskets out of the necessity of finding a medium she could work in.

"When I first came here, I thought I could teach flower arranging, but they do it much differently here," she said.

Western flower arranging is much more concerned with the symmetric display of blooms, whereas ikebana is more concerned with balance among three elements of the arrangement, with stems being the primary medium of expression.

"It's a big thing in Asia to be proficient in that art," she said. Yao also trained in interior and landscape design.

Her work immediately underwent a radical change, since the different culture of floral arrangement made it challenging to even find the type of pottery needed for her pieces.

She began to work in pottery and soon found that, although she was able to produce the containers she needed for her floral designs, her other artistic demands were pressing against the limitations of clay.

"I was unhappy with the lack of control I had with the size and the color in pottery," Yao said. "When you fire a piece, you don't really know exactly how the color will come out."

She was more dissatisfied with the size issue, noting that a large piece required too many steps and would be heavy and complicated. "You can't make a large piece without having to put together several small pieces," she said.

Living in Ft. Lauderdale, she began to experiment with the flower stalks of the palm trees there - queen palm, royal palm and coconut palm - for weaving into baskets and other aesthetic, pseudo-functional pieces. The palm fiber was much more satisfactory.

"I had such a desire to create, and I felt so limited with pottery," she said. "Getting into weaving really set me free."

Yao says that one of her big motivations in art is expressing her Christian faith, the belief that God as the creator endows all his creatures with the need to create.

"When we create art, we are able to understand God's creation better," she says. "Making art is a joyful thing, and something we can share with one another."

Palm fiber is an incredibly abundant resource. Yao finds the flower stalks while she is out walking around her neighborhood, and collects, sorts and dries them herself.

"People often ask me if I'm doing community service," she says, laughing. "I say, 'In a sense.' It looks like I'm picking up trash, but I get the benefit from it."

So do collectors of her work.

"I sometimes think that if I didn't create art out of some pieces of fiber, they would just be trash," Yao says.

"That's what I mean by creating - otherwise it would just lie in the street and be run over by cars. But instead, I can make something and share my joy in creating, and someone else can have that feeling too."

Yao's biggest inspiration and most trusted critic is her mother, also an artist. "I like to watch her for her first response," Yao says.

"Sometimes I can't understand her criticism right away, but if I ponder it, then later it will click and I can make changes. Sometimes it's hard to see at first, because we are at the center of our own thinking. But when we know people are on our side and love us, their words can inspire us."

Since she came, serendipitously, to weaving works of palm fiber, Yao says she has a wish for her work to influence others.

"I want people to think of Florida for the beauty of its palm fiber the way people think of South Carolina for its sweetgrass baskets," she says.

"Not just my baskets - but to think of the palm trees and the beautiful material they provide for all the things you can make."

"If you need to, you can even make a broom."