In Conversation

Inaugural Innovation Fellow will help link the arts and entrepreneurship

As Innovation Fellow, Ye Qin Zhu ’20 M.F.A. will serve as the lead liaison between the Yale Schwarzman Center and the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking.
Ye Qin Zhu

Ye Qin Zhu (Photo credit: Jun Chen)

In his art, Ye Qin Zhu ’20 M.F.A. often brings together disparate parts: paint, dried plants and seeds, glass, and stones. As an educator, he has closed divides, bringing art into the lives of young children who might previously have had little exposure to it.

In his new role as the inaugural Innovation Fellow for the Yale Schwarzman Center (YSC) and the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking (Tsai CITY), the recent Yale School of Art graduate will make connections and close gaps at an institutional level by advancing the intersection between innovation, the arts, and technology across campus. Zhu will serve as the lead liaison between the two centers by designing and developing programs, initiatives, and creative research opportunities, while also helping to improve student engagement in and access to resources for innovative, artistic, and technology-based projects. 

Last summer, he helped to design a memorial — through the lens of social justice — for New Haven communities affected by COVID-19 as part of the Design Brigade internship, a program co-sponsored by the Yale Center for Collaborative Arts and Media and Atelier Cho Thompson, a New Haven architecture firm. Working with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Zhu and other Yale student interns interviewed community members to learn how best to represent their experiences, proposed a design to Mayor Justin Elicker ’10 M.E.M./M.B.A., and created a guide to help the city further develop the project.

Zhu recently spoke to YaleNews about his new role as the Innovation Fellow, which he began in the end of October. The interview is condensed and edited.

What made you decide to stay in New Haven after graduating from Yale School of Art?

I had planned on staying even prior to the pandemic. I’m from New York, but having the time to work in my studio is a lot easier in New Haven. And I’ve been in New Haven for two years and find the community very open to engagement. 

What interested you in serving as the first YSC Innovation Fellow?

As part of my interdisciplinary practice, I think about the idea of “healing” a lot. A mission of the Yale Schwarzman Center is to convene people across schools, disciplines, and communities for moments of discovery and connection. To me, this means bridging the divide between the arts and entrepreneurship, between undergraduate and graduate students, and between Yale and Greater New Haven. In addition, both the YSC and Tsai CITY are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion as a form of social healing. I’m excited about furthering within the institution my ambition to develop the practices of healing and social healing.

I think it’s really exciting to bridge the performing arts, art, and creativity with entrepreneurship. While studying at the Yale School of Art, I took a class on social entrepreneurship at the School of Management. I believe creatives have a lot to offer the entrepreneurial world. It’s a different mindset, a different way of problem solving. I come from a background as an interdisciplinary artist. With a friend, I started Socotra Studio, a design and build studio where we started out making the crappiest furniture you’ve ever seen and ended up working with high-end clients, like Etsy headquarters. I think it’s important to empower artists to be in these entrepreneurial worlds to survive and give voice. 

Through this link between YSC and Tsai CITY, we will create pathways for artists to navigate their own studio practice but also to expand that practice through entrepreneurship and civic engagement — working with local communities, city departments, and businesses, for example.

“A Universe”: a building project Zhu is developing at the Beam Camp in New Hampshire.
“A Universe”: a building project Zhu is developing at the Beam Camp in New Hampshire. The structure consists of a giant bottle gourd made of cob and lime plaster; during rainfall, water streams down into the windows, where there are instruments that fill up, tip, spill, hit notes and make music. The project is currently postponed until 2021.

What kind of programming are you developing?

I have only been in this new role for a month, so we are just finalizing some of our programming plans. One thing I hope to do is to invite artists who are also entrepreneurs to come to give talks and workshops, to show different ways of engaging entrepreneurship. I’d also like to invite a team of students, something like the Design Brigade, to work on a creative collaborative project in the New Haven community. I think it’s really effective for students to be accountable for the projects they take on in the city. The team might address a community need using creative modes, whether designing or building something through research, engagement, and feedback.

Did you do any projects in Tsai CITY while in art school?

I worked on a team project in a School of Management class and we went to Tsai CITY for mentorship and advice.

[Former Yale World Fellow] Baljeet Sandhu, who was then an innovator in residence at Tsai CITY, is an inspiration; she brought to Tsai CITY this idea of social impact work through lived experience. What that means is that individuals and communities create social change on issues they have experienced directly — a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down approach. I think this relates to Tsai CITY’s purpose, which is to inspire students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to collaborate on innovative solutions to real-world problems. My idea to have student teams take such an approach is inspired by this model and is another example of healing that is at the core of my work.

Has your own background as part of an immigrant family shaped your own artistic path?

My parents, who came here from Taishan, Guangdong Province, China, were farmers. Growing up in an immigrant family and from a limited-resource background meant I had to be resourceful, adaptable, and imaginative to envisioning possibility for myself. I went through public schools and then was accepted at The Cooper Union School for the Advancement of Science and Art [in New York]. I got a great education but it was very European-centric, and it didn’t correlate to the ideas I was thinking about. I didn’t feel I was heard or that my ideas were valued. After graduating from Cooper Union, I moved away from art and focused on craft. It took many years for me to gain confidence in my own voice and my own history.

As I said, my parents were farmers, and my mom had a garden. And I think that in my own studio practice and in my roles as an educator or administrator, this notion of “sowing seeds” has been important in how I navigate. Whether in my own art or at an institution, I am always thinking about what kinds of seeds I am sowing. You are taking roots, soil, and nutrients, and seeding to bring forth new fruits. That’s a concept embedded in me from my parents, and what, symbolically, I’ll be doing as an Innovation Fellow — working with musicians, dancers, artists, entrepreneurs and helping them plant seeds that bear fruit.

To see more of Zhu’s artistic projects, visit his Instagram page.


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