JOE CHANG discovers the highlights of inspiration from his personal life experience and perception.

By Daria Trifu

Joe Chang studied printmaking at the university in Shenyang, China where he remained as a teacher after graduation. “In 1982, it was one of the best jobs a college graduate could get. If he could have held the job until retirement, it might have been a good choice, but I was never one to content with the status quo”, he says.

He went on to study in Japan, and later he moved to Canada where he regained the love for movies that he had dating back to his youth. He became a filmmaker himself; his animated short film Chinese Violin was accepted by the National Film Board of Canada. The recognition he received for this first work was an important turning point in his life and the catalyst for his embarkment on the road of animation film-making as a career.

Joe Chang created the animation part for the Canadian documentary Incorrigible. The film tells the story of Velma Demerson, a white woman from Ontario who fell in love with a Chinese youth and was sent to prison by her father in the late 1930s. Chang finds that racial discrimination still exists today giving this story practical significance in our time.

In addition to teaching and making animated films, Joe Chang creates ink paintings, (the technique used is painting on vinyl films with ink). He made thousands of paintings so far. Many praise him for being diligent, an adjective he likes. He often tells his students that when opting in or out of an industry, the most important criteria to follow is described in three words: ‘I like it’.

“For every person who is engaged in artistic realization, there is a problem that will always haunt him, namely how the inspiration is generated. I think that even some very successful artists may not be able to answer this question accurately. Is there a way in the world for creative inspiration to appear at the time and place you specify? Until now, this method has not been discovered. On the other hand, because this kind of trouble is surrounds the creator all the time, everyone is accustomed to it and doesn’t think it is a trouble,” explains the artist.

The greatest internal motivation for working tirelessly with joy lies in the creation.

Joe Chang

Joe Chang learned a method suitable for his own creative process. It requires a constant search for the discovery of highlights of inspiration from his life experience: it means to understand more, experience more, think more, and practice more. This method has proven very effective for him. Looking back, along the way, Chang’s painting and animation work are closely related to his life and way of thinking. Although he himself thinks that he did not yield any amazing results, nor is he a genius patronized by God, his creative methods are enough to release his mind and body and gain happiness on the road of artistic enlightenment.

After three years of work, Joe Chang completed the animated short film The Music Box in 2019. It is based on his personal experience. It is set in China during the Cultural Revolution of 1967, and it is about a young boy, Liang Liang, whose family is suddenly taken to the countryside by Red Guards. The only treasured item that he is able to grab is a western style music box. He is careful not to expose it to the Red Guards since it was linked to western culture.

The message carried by the film is that music can be a universal messenger of peace in the world.

In 2020, Joe Chang created an interesting experimental animated short entitled Pray. The animation is a non-narrative short film that is abundantly poetic. It centers on a praying wise man, with a theme of the human’s prayer for peace and happiness. The film is divided into three parts, each with a relatively independent humanistic connotation. Many of the visual images in the film are afforded by Chang’s original ink and wash animations. Integrated organically with music of rich Oriental flavor, these dynamic animations present the audience with an artistic audio-visual experience. In the experience, dynamism permeates calmness while harmonizing with it. Truly, it exemplifies the beauty of Zen of the East. In the second half of this short film that only lasts for 4 1/2 minutes, the author’s paintings from different periods of his career are also consciously displayed. The animated film is thus expressive of the author’s personal life experience and perception.

In his films, Chang creates a subtle and dynamic atmosphere that is consistent with the theme of the experimental film; his unique expression endows the image with a lively sense of respiration, a highlight of the originality of the film.

The latest animated film by Chang is I Am Not an Angel, an 11-minute film with no dialogue that is about an ordinary nurse named Amy who does everything in her power to help save a critical patient struggling with Covid-19. It is a testament to the heroic deeds of the health care workers in the fight against a deadly enemy that is infecting and killing people all over the world.

Joe Chang began working on the concept of the story a few months ago when we were not allowed to travel and had to stay in self-quarantine. “Like everyone else, I didn’t understand what the virus was, since governments were not telling the truth about the rate of infections and the mounting deaths. As it moved from Wuhan China to the rest of the world, suddenly we were all fighting this enemy without knowing how it spreads and how to protect each other. All I knew was that death from infection was real, and if we didn’t follow strict protocols, it would continue to spread and kill people at an exponential rate. This story started in China, but it’s no different for any country that is currently watching its people get infected and die. I end the story with the virus still lurking in the shadows.”

Themes of life and death have been explored by artists since ancient times. Each artist uses his own artistic insight and comprehension of the world to interpret what he experiences. Joe uses symbolic characters represented by the patient, the demon and the angel. These characters represent the strong desire to live, the horror of death, and the valor of fighting the demon to the end.

Chang wants I Am Non an Angel to be a tribute to the sacrifices health care workers make for us. “They are ordinary people, but they are extra-ordinary: too modest to call themselves heroes, not seeing themselves as life-saving angels. Completely altruistic, they put themselves in danger to care for us. They are in my eyes – Angels.”

The nightmare of the pandemic continues, leaving a mark that will never be erased from our collective memory. D! 

Self-portrait, 1981, artist Joe Chang
  • Joe Chang is an award-winning Chinese-born Canadian animation director and artist. His films have been awarded internationally, and his paintings have been collected by many art galleries and are part of private collections. Today, the artist, together with his wife Yang Li and their two sons, lives in Vancouver, Canada. He is also teaching animation in Hangzhou and Shanghai, China as a visiting professor.