Back in 2012, when Jason Cole Mager began renting a spare bedroom in his home in New York to tourists, he had no idea the decision would eventually bring him to Taipei.
‘If you’re ever feeling apathetic about your surroundings, open your home to travellers. Their enthusiasm for what you’ve been ignoring will remind you of what’s so special about where you live’, says Mager, who’s been a professional artist his entire adult life.
A Taiwanese guest unintentionally changed the trajectory of Mager’s life by urging him to visit Taiwan. ‘I came out for a month and was really hooked’, recalls the American. ‘After returning home to New York, I rented my place out long-term so I could have an extended stay back in Taiwan. I decided to give it a year or so. That was five years ago’.
‘In terms of art, Taiwan has been enormously inspiring. After finishing my master’s degree in fine arts in 2005, I wrestled with new ideas. I kept coming back to photos and stories of my relatives during World War II but couldn’t make anything that seemed coherent or did justice to the importance of those memories’.
Soon after moving to Taipei, the Indianapolis-born artist found a small memorial to 14 US airmen who were executed after being shot down by the Japanese forces then occupying Taiwan. ‘This discovery was profound to me’, says Mager. ‘It connected my stories with those of Taipei people. I began pouring over history books and obsessing myself with flags, emblems, and family crests. Organizing these symbols in specific ways became a way for me to document a piece of history from a modern perspective; creating what may simply appear as decorative or almost wallpaper, but actually hiding a code when the symbols are considered’.
Like most of the works Mager has completed in Taiwan, ‘Taipei – May 31, 1945 in Blue’ [top left] is oil, acrylic and ink on linen. It acknowledges the bombing of Taipei by the US Air Force very near the end of World War II. Both Longshan Temple and what’s now the Presidential Office were seriously damaged in that raid.
Since moving to Taiwan, Mager thinks his work ‘has become less about navel-gazing and more about connecting with others and trying to encourage open conversations about history, culture, and politics’.
‘I’ve also reinvented how I work, and forced myself to learn new skills and approaches to painting that would’ve never surfaced if I’d not chosen to stay in Taiwan’. Early on, he was fascinated with Taiwanese people’s use of stamps (seals or name chops) to sign their names on official documents.
Mager has received a foreign-talent visa from Taiwan’s government. ‘This allows me to create, exhibit, lecture, and sell my work here, and guarantees me a few more years of active residency’. He urges art lovers everywhere to seek out the work of Taiwanese artists such as Shu Lea Cheang, Dean-E Mei, and Tang Jo-Hung.
Asked to share his advice for travellers considering a trip to Taiwan, Mager says: ‘I could wholeheartedly recommend dozens of great galleries and museums, but when my friends (who are primarily artists) visit we usually obsess over the landscape and food‘.
‘The first thing we do is hike. We hit the back trails of Elephant and Tiger mountains. Few tourists walk these smaller trails, which link the area’s temples. That can easily take up a day. After that, I have a friend who owns a great restaurant on Yangmingshan called Living Forest, where we go for dinner and drinks. This always makes my guests fall in love with the city and the country’.
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