Campus News

GSE PhD student hopes children’s art provides inspiration during the pandemic


Published May 14, 2020

“I hope people can be inspired by these little artists and … be cheered up by their great art pieces. ”
Qinghua Chen, PhD student
Graduate School of Education

Jiayou China! Jiayou Buffalo! Jiayou children artists!

The Chinese “jiayou” cheer means “Keep going!” It is the message that GSE PhD student Qinghua Chen first sent to her home country in a video produced soon after news of the pandemic broke. She gave aid of a different kind to her Buffalo-area home last month when she donated 3,600 face masks to the Amherst Police and the Pediatric & Adolescent Urgent Care of WNY. This month she debuted her latest effort: an online exhibit of children’s art she’s collected in the months since the pandemic moved most UB students and employees off campus to work and study remotely.

As news of virus outbreaks swept from China to the U.S. and around the world, Chen tried to help by launching a series of creative, collaborative projects. “For me, I’m playing the role of a global citizen … I just want to help a little bit.”

Her new photo exhibition on her website features 100 art works made by 60 children in seven countries since schools closed. “Children are born artists. They have striking inspirations,” says Chen, who is studying early childhood education in GSE’s Curriculum, Instruction and Science of Learning PhD program. “I call this art gallery ‘Born Artists.’ I hope people can be inspired by these little artists and … be cheered up by their great art pieces.”

"I found Spring!" by Zijin Zhu, age 5 from the United States, using dandelions and grasses.

She was inspired by her 5-year-old daughter Leonie’s love of drawing and the role local libraries play in hosting activities for children, which is very different from the adult-focused role of libraries in China. Chen volunteered at the Amherst library branches, planning exhibitions by picking themes and asking children to create art for hallway displays.

The show she organized about this year’s Chinese Year of the Rat was her last before libraries closed this spring. Chen then moved online, turning to her blog on the Chinese WeChat app.

She asked families if they’d like to contribute photos of art related to themes of school closings, play and fighting the virus. Submissions came in from children, many of Chinese descent, living in the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Japan, China, Canada and Australia.

Work ranged from crayon drawings of nurses in face masks to sculpture and performance art, including a boat from recycled cans, a paper-mâché balloon egg and a yoga session with stuffed animals. A 5-year-old girl dipped Q-tips in red nail polish to paint cherry blossom trees. Another young artist made a version of a Picasso portrait with a lemon, using string for hair and a red paper hat. And from Chen’s daughter, “spring” spelled with letters made from bent dandelions and buttercups.

"Picasso on a Lemon!" by Ashlyn Xiao, age 10 from the United States, using a lemon, paper and string.

Chen is now exploring patterns in the art she collected. She has noticed two already. Children based in the U.S. made more art about missing their teachers. Art from children in China reflected more about helping parents with cooking. “Cooking food is a key part of Chinese culture,” she says.

Soon she intends to add new exhibits and new themes to the online children’s gallery she continues to develop at her new site. The address is based on the acronym for what she hopes will be the name of the education center that she founds one day: The International Cross Cultural and Communication Center for Children.

Before moving to Amherst to study at UB, Chen lived in Shanghai and was a finance reporter for a British news service and worked in marketing and communications at the Chinese L’Oréal and Chanel headquarters.

Chen’s background in communications gives a unique perspective to her current work. “It’s about communication but in different ways,” she says. “It’s about seeing the world from a different perspective and serving the world.”