Flair meets JASON LU, an artist born in Taiwan to a Shanghai family, who came to live in Malta via San Francisco and Florence.

Jason Luís Marsascala studio is the adult equivalent of a giant playground. Open plan and on the ground floor, it is packed with books about art, piles of paints, crayons and pastels, brushes, paper, canvas and huge pieces of wood on which he works his creative magic. Against one wall stands a painting almost one-storey high, of a woman looking down at anyone who gazes up at her in awe. Her blue-green dress whirls like stardust about her. Against another wall, half-finished works are stacked, things with which Jason has become impatient, others that he can no longer find the will to finish, because he doesnít feel the way he did when he started them. The finished work is huge: stunning faces full of mystery, and a vast work in four pieces, which fit together to form a crouching, naked man.

Jason now teaches art in Malta, where he lives with his Belorussian wife, Zoya Lu, who teaches yoga at the Westin Dragonara Resort. They met in Taiwan and honeymooned in Gozo. Marsascala might be an unusual place to find a gifted Chinese-American artist who is well travelled and wholly dedicated to his art ñ besides having perfect manners, a quality that should never be overlooked. But then Jason himself is unusual, in the positive sense of the word. His story is a remarkable one of perseverance and of being open to whatever fortune ñ and misfortune ñ puts in oneís way.

Jason Lu was born Lu Shenzeh (in Chinese culture, as with Arab culture, the family name comes before the personal name) in Taipei, Taiwan. His father came from a well-to-do Shanghai family that moved out of the mainland as the political pressures increased.

When he was 15, with the agreement and support of his father, he and his mother left for San Francisco, where she has two sisters and a brother. His mother immediately changed his name to Jason, the ëwesterní name that most closely resembled Shenzeh. She sold it to him by explaining that Jason was a great hero in ancient Greek mythology. His father insisted that they should live in a very good neighbourhood in the Bay area, and it was this that, indirectly, let Jason to lose himself in art. Though San Francisco has a huge ethnic Chinese population, the neighbourhood in  which Jason settled with his mother was entirely Caucasian. ìWe were the only Chinese there,î he says. ìThe school didnít even have a programme for integrating recent immigrants who spoke poor English, because I was the first one.î And Jason spoke no English at all.

Imagine being taken out of your family environment and plunged into a life where everybody speak Chinese, and only Chinese, where you canít understand what is being said and done around you. That is how it was for Jason, during his first year in San Francisco, until he began to crack the language. (He now speak English perfectly). He found himself having to go round with a pad and pencil, ready to whiz out little drawings to explain to people what he needed, or what he was trying to say. Strangely, thatís how he started using art to communicate, at its most basic level.

But things were still very thorny. The most difficult year in a boyís life ñ 15 to 18 ñ coincided with his shift to an alien culture where he was ostracized by his contemporaries. ìI was increasingly isolated,î he says. ìTo the other kids I was the Chinese guy who couldnít speak English, who drew pictures to communicate. I was the only Chinese in the school, the only Chinese in the neighbourhood, and you know how it is with kids sometimes ñ they made fun of me, left me out of things. It wasnít easy, and I had a lot of anger inside.î

With the help of special need teacher, who was oddly drafted in instead of what was really required ñ a teacher of English as a foreign language ñ Jason made it through high school, with a dictionary as his constant companion, together with that pad and pencil. Meanwhile, with very little social life and spending most of his free time at home, he immersed himself in his art, trying different techniques and methods. ìI grew more in my art than in my maths,î he laughs. ìI only had two close friends.î

After high school, he wanted to make a career of art, but his parents were adamant, like other parents all over the globe, that he should get a degree that would ìgive him something to fall back onî and enough money to live. This difference of opinion did nothing to dissuade Jason. He was determined that, if his parents (he and his mother visited his father in Taiwan for several month each year) wouldnít put him through college to study art, then he would find a way on his own. In the United States, those who do military service are given financial assistance with their college studies, so Jason decided that he would sing up for the military. That did it.

His father, an army officer, was horrified rather than pleased that his son would follow in his footsteps. That wasnít the life he wanted for him. They reached a compromise. Mr. Lu senior wouldnít pay for Jason to study something as capricious as art, but he would give him a loan. And his mother? ìShe wanted me to be an accountant, because thatís what she is by profession.î

In the end, Jason compromised too. ìI didnít have the guts to go for fine art,î he says. ìI didnít think I could make it, and I had a niggling thought somewhere in my mind that perhaps my parents were right.î He studied 3-D animation and web design. ìBut thatís really helped me, too, because the work I did after college allowed me to save up enough for the life I really wanted.î

He worked hard after (should be during) college and put money by towards some as yet undetermined end. Then he went on holiday to Italy. Seeing the work of Michelangelo for the first time in actuality, he had a kind of epiphany. ìSomething changed inside me, permanently,î he says. ìIt was brought home to me sharply that somehow I had stopped being true to myself, and to what I really wanted to do. I had become over-concerned with issue like money and survival, when all I wanted to do was dedicate myself to art in its purest form.î

Jason went back to San Francisco, quit his job, researched schools, got his savings and his earthly possessions together, and moved to Florence. There for three years, he studied at The Florence Academy of Art, focusing in the classical manner on the human figure. Perfectly-drawn limbs and torsos still clutter up his studio, but his dismisses any admiring remark with a throwaway ìoh, anybody can do that ñ all it takes is practice.î Now he says that his interest in the human body has become somewhat muted, and that he is more take with the mind, with how people think and feel.

While in Florence, Jason travelled all over Europe, and once a fellow student suggested a trip to Malta, an island she had read about in a guide book, She told him that it would cost next to nothing, because ìyou can get three Maltese lira for every dollarî and they would also be able to ìtake a helicopter to Tunisia.î Jason and friend arrived to find that they had less then a third of the spending money they were counting on, and that it was to Gozo that the helicopter flew. He laughs uproariously at the memory: ìThat was the last time I ever travelled with that particular friend.î

He liked what he saw, though, and when the time came to leave Florence (ìMy money had finally run out.î), he told his mother that he was returning to San Francisco. She responded with an offer of financial aid, which he accepted. On a teacherís work permit, he came to live in Malta and began to work on sculpture and to explore fresh areas of painting, teaching fine art to private students and in schools. ìI like it here,î he says simply. ìIt would be different if I wanted a big social life, or anything but the space and quiet that allow me to work on new art forms. Zoya gets edgy sometimes, though; sheís a big-city girl and she loves that kind of buzz.î Somehow, though he spent most of his life in Taiwan and San Francisco. Jason doesnít see himself as a big-city boy.

Now he is beginning to work with metal. Heís looking at painting on wood and carving it, using mixed media. Does he paint portraits, given that the ability to bring to life the human form and face is a singular strength of his? His answer is unequivocal: ìYes, but only if I like the sitter. If this is an individual with whom I get along, then I will enjoy doing it, and the result will be what I want. I could paint a perfect replica of a personís face, but whatís the point of doing that? I tell them that they might as well get a photographer to take a photograph. If they insist that they donít want a photograph, but a painting then I recommend other artist who are willing to do that sort of thing. A portrait should be much deeper than a photographic likeness, and you canít do that unless you have insight into your sitter. I find it impossible to paint strangers, people with whom I have no point of contact or interaction.î