Professor Profile: Barbara Edelstein

Ziqi Lin sat down with Professor Barbara Edelstein to discuss her background, inspiration, and experiences living and teaching in Shanghai.

With her dark, curly hair and warm, round eyes, Barbara Edelstein may not appear to be your archetypal Shanghai artist. Yet, the professor of arts who has resided here for almost twenty years certainly considers Shanghai her home and is widely regarded by the community as a local artist.

Edelstein’s office is embedded in the art studio on the eighth floor of NYU Shanghai’s campus in Pudong. Back when she first stepped foot on Chinese soil in 1997, Pudong was still a vast stretch of farms and villages. 20 years later, she teaches a studio art class with her husband, Jian-Jun Zhang, which blends Eastern and Western techniques in a university which prides itself on providing a global education and state-of-the-art facilities. “If I don’t look at my face, I don’t know I am an outsider,” said Edelstein.

It is uncommon to see two professors teaching simultaneously in the same class, and even more unusual that this partnership is a cross-cultural one.  Yet, Edelstein said this arrangement for the course, Introduction to Studio Art – Chinese Traditional Methods in Contemporary Art, evolved organically. This class format allows them to provide their students with more holistic feedback and give each student more individualized attention.

Ironically, Zhang’s style is more western because he studied western oil painting, whereas Edelstein’s work is more Asian. “I never felt comfortable doing one-point perspective or three-point perspective in a traditional Western manner so I always did it my way.” Edelstein said, “My way of seeing is an Asian or Oriental way.”

The couple met at a party in New York City while Edelstein was part of the P.S.1 studio residency program. In 1997, she followed Zhang to Shanghai. She described Shanghai back then as “wild.” The energy, the amount of people was like nothing she had ever seen. Edelstein is one of the few foreigners who have witnessed Shanghai’s dramatic transformation into the 21st century. “You still have third world and first world here, but less and less the third world,” she observed.

When Edelstein first came to China, she did not read or speak any Chinese. Once, she was so lost she had to call Zhang from a phone booth to figure out where she was because she could not understand any street signs. Nevertheless, Edelstein was unfazed because she grew up travelling with her family and was comfortable living in different places.

“I learned very early that people are the same wherever you go,” said Edelstein, “You don’t necessarily have to speak the same language but somehow you can communicate.” Zhang also introduced her to his friends and the local art community. She held her first solo show in 2000 and is now widely recognized as a Shanghai artist under the Chinese name Zhang gave her.

Even before she married into a Shanghainese family, Edelstein’s life was already closely intertwined with Asian culture. As a teenager, she was exposed to oriental aesthetics through the imagery of Japanese Zen gardens when her parents returned with books from their trip to Japan. There was also a strong influence of Asian philosophies such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism in her upbringing as these were part of the Beatniks movement popular in California during the 1950s and 60s.

“I was meditating in high school,” she said. She read Taoist philosophy by Lao Tzu in school and both her uncle and cousin became a monk for a while. Edelstein said that even though she is culturally Jewish, she enjoys reading a wide variety of philosophical literature. Edelstein is perhaps a living embodiment of how globalization promoted cross-cultural dialogues and exchanges.

Art and nature are core tenets of Edelstein’s identity. She grew up in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles in a creative and multicultural neighborhood richly imbued with those aesthetics. Both her parents are artists, so she and her older brother spent their childhood visiting art galleries, playing in their parents’ studio and painting on easels in the bedroom. While other children played with Barbie dolls and Lego sets, Edelstein’s toys were clay, chalkboards, paper, and paint.

Edelstein also enjoyed learning science, so in college she double majored in art and biology. Yet, it was not until her last year of college that she made a choice between the two, eventually giving up on her dreams of becoming a biologist. “I did not finish my research because I decided I could not kill my mice,” Edelstein explained, “They were quite nice.”

Her gentle spirit and respect for nature are clearly visible in her work as an artist. Pictures of luscious, green leaves are plastered across the whiteboard in her office. She feels a strong connection to nature and enjoys working with natural imagery. “Water is life,” she emphasized.

Edelstein said she craved nature when stuck in the concrete jungle of urban cities. Her work stemmed from her desire to bring our industrial society back to natural forms. For instance, she would use old rusty steel to create an abstract landscape sculpture. She hoped that this would bridge the gap for city-dwellers and allow them to be in touch with their primitive longings for nature.

One such piece is “Elemental Spring Harmony,” which was installed in Jing’an Sculpture Park in 2010. It is a bronze and copper sculpture five meters high, consisting of a ball of intertwined branches and a piece of massive, curved leaf. She said that her art serves as her political statement to express that we, as human beings, are not doing a good job in protecting our environment.

“Being an artist is not an easy life, there are no guarantees… I grew up knowing that. It’s all on you,” she said. Even though she has a background in a variety of art techniques, she has worked predominantly as a sculptor. “I always saw things physically, in three dimensions.” Her background in dance also informed her sculptural works, because knowing how bodies exist in space and understanding how they react to their physical environment helped her as a sculptor. “There is a definite connection between my dance background and my art,” Edelstein said.

Edelstein deeply believes that she was put on this earth to make the world a better place. “As an artist I hope to make the world more beautiful and make people more aware of nature,” she said. She is also inspired when she sees her students work hard, because they want art so much and respond to it.

Edelstein’s goal is to encourage an appreciation of art in her students, so they know how art is done and understand what they are looking at. She recalled one of her former students telling her that, originally, he saw a tree as just a tree. After the course, he began observing the shape, shadow, texture, and colour in trees. She hoped this process would open up their eyes so they learn to appreciate the world around them even more. As a teacher, this is what gives her joy.

Her works were recently displayed in the “Shanghai Artists Joint Exhibition 2017” at the China Art Museum. They are a series of diptychs – a photograph and a drawing of leaves contrasted next to each other. Even though they are created using different techniques, she said the photographs and drawings are in dialogue with one another and ultimately share the same artistic vision.

Above all, art is such an essential part of Edelstein’s life that it feels just like the air she breathes. “This is something I cannot live without. I need to express myself this way, I need to do it, it’s my life.”

This article was written by Ziqi Lin. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Barbara Edelstein

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