Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Anita Wong: A Place to Stand

by Richard Whittaker, Jun 27, 2017


 

 



[detail] Anita Wong
Lingnan-style Guo Hua - rice paper ink painting

“My name is Anita Yan Wong, international artist and former art professor from SVA and Maryland Institute College of Arts.” So began this note of inquiry. It turned out Anita was having an exhibit in San Francisco. I decided to go to the opening at Canessa Gallery, a place I’d never heard of. A quick search yielded this: “For more than 45 years, Canessa Gallery has been at the center of San Francisco’s rich artistic, literary, and cultural history. Our mission is to support and showcase the work of artists who want to be artists for their lifetime.” Really? The gallery was located in a wonderful (pricey) old part of the city.
     Three things about this added to my curiosity: its non-profit status, the fact that it had been around a long time and I’d never heard of it, and the endearingly quaint phrase about artists “who want to be artists for their lifetime.”
     I sensed something out of the ordinary.
     The evening of the opening, I drove into the city from Oakland and to my surprise, found a parking spot a short block from the gallery. I’d lived in North Beach in the late 60s and this part of town hadn’t changed much. Quickly finding the address, I climbed the stairs to the second floor. And there it was, a modest room with walls of exposed old brick hung with several paintings. I noticed a table with food and wine set out, a cut above the usual. Maybe ten people were there in all. A man was seated near the back of the room at a table. He had a white beard and wore a baseball hat. It had to be Zach, the gallery owner.
     As I stood there taking the place in, an Asian boy of seven or eight hurried up to me, maybe the artist’s son. He wanted to show me something—a piece of his mother’s art? I followed him a few steps and he pointed up at the wall. Then I saw it, a gas flame about eight inches high; it was the old- style gas lighting. A gas line sticks out of the wall with one right angle. Turn on the gas and light it. Simple. I’d never seen this old-style lighting before. The boy and I looked at it together for a little bit. My goodness! A real gas flame, indeed. By then, I knew I’d made a good decision in coming.
     I noticed feeling quite relaxed, and soon a young man approached me and we chatted, Chris. An artist? No, an engineer, Anita’s husband. The artist was deep in conversation with another young woman. So after a pleasant chat, I made my way over to the old man.
     “You must be the owner of this place.”
     “Well, I run it,” he said.
     “How come I’ve never heard of this place?” I asked him.
     “Could be because I’m allergic to the media. The way I look at it, the only time for having my name in print is when I was born, when I got married and when I die.”
      have to admit, this statement was so unexpected, I didn’t exactly know how to process it. So I just left it there as a new experience. I asked Zach what had gotten him interested in starting a gallery.
     “I’m an architect,” he said. “I got tired of sitting in a drafting room with a bunch of other architects. And I thought I’d like to be surrounded by artists. They’re more interesting. So I rented this space and started having art exhibits.”
     Now, for a second time, I was at a momentary loss. Artists were just more interesting, he said. At some point he told me his age—he’s in his 80s and takes the bus to each opening. “Now be careful going home,” he said.
     I tried to imagine riding the buses late at night at his age, and wondered if he was an artist himself. (No.) By then something told me it was time to let go of my assumptions. “Do you still practice architecture?”
     “Oh, yes.”

I didn’t have time to talk much with Anita that evening. But our brief exchange and what I saw was enough to arrange for a later meeting, and then for an interview. On the morning of the interview we met at her home and studio. Before long, Anita pulled out some drawings that were nearly invisible, just lines incised on clear acrylic. These were mysterious and I turned the recorder on…rw

Anita Wong:  I want to show you this project. My great grandmother and part of my grandmother’s generation had to bind their feet to be able to marry. It was considered beautiful, and it was a display of status—they didn’t need their feet to work, they were called lotus feet. But in fact, that’s very painful; they do it when the girls are extremely young, three years of age maybe. So the girls can’t work and can’t go outside. Women are not allowed to do many things. They don’t have the status men do. So there’s no freedom. Women were forbidden any kind of formal education for many centuries, and they developed the Nüshu script in order to communicate with one another. Then, right before they got married and after they got married, the women would write to each other in the secret language of woman: Nüshu.
     When men look at it, they can’t understand because it’s a language created by women and exclusively used by women. Those writings are very poetic, often in the format of poems, letters or songs. It’s always about how they suffer, how they miss their family. When you read it, it’s very emotional. So, I want to learn more about Nüshu. I want to learn more about what they wrote, because I’m a Chinese-American artist and I have all the freedom in the world, and when I look at my grandmother’s time, not so long ago, women didn’t have anything. But now that I have the freedom to express, what do I want to say in my art? So, this project was for fun at first. I didn’t realize until later that it was an act in my own personal space that touched me on a very personal level. I somehow connected with these women, their storie, through this project. I came to realize how lucky I am, as a modern Chinese woman, to be educated and most important, allowed to express myself with my art. I look forward to getting up every morning because I can create art. Now this project means a lot to me not only on a personal level but also because not many people know about Nüshu; it’s invisible [shows me a piece etched glass]. Can you see her bound feet?

works:  [turning the glass to catch the light to reveal the lines] Yes. Now I’m seeing it. I’ve never heard of this before.

Anita:  Even my mom doesn’t know about it. So, I think my grandmother might know, but my mom didn’t know, and when she learned about it, she was about to cry.

works:  Are there people today who still know this language?

Anita:  Actually in China, in Jiangyong Prefecture, Hunan Province, there are only a few women who still know how to write it. I feel like the last proficient user has passed away. So only recently China is trying to preserve this language. Some people are trying to practice it again, but I think it no longer contains the same meaning as it used to. China is different now. Nüshu is very different from the Chinese calligraphy you normally see because it was a secret language, a syllabic script. So, they wrote on a fan they could fold up. And when a daughter was given to a marriage—back then usually it was a blind marriage—the mom would write inside a jacket and the daughter would wear it. It served as an escape and a secret medium for women to express their pain, sorrow and hope with other women.

works:  Oh, gosh.

Anita:  Yes. It’s why it’s very emotional. So, I was thinking, if I do a lot of these to memorialize the women, I could put these on the wall, and when people walk into a gallery, you wouldn’t see anything. You’d wonder, “Where’s the work?”

works:  That’s a great idea.

Anita:  Yes. What I’ll do is give everyone a flashlight to view the drawings. I feel the viewer is definitely part of the art. That’s why I value showing my work, because I can see the reaction of the viewer. With this work, I want viewers to have flashlights so they can search to see the script, think about the past history and about, “What does it mean to me?”

works:  Would you be exhibiting these in China?

Anita:  I haven’t applied to anywhere. I’m just doing it at home and showing my friends and family. Many times I do a show not for art sales, but just for myself. So if today I really want to paint, then I will produce a really good painting. I can’t force myself to paint.

works:  Yes. Well, tell me a little bit about the painting you learned when you were very young. You were being taught by a woman in China.

Anita:  Yes, Hsin Pengjiu in Hong Kong. She is Taiwanese and moved to Hong Kong in the early 70s. She’s actually very well known. Her teacher, Chao Shao-Ang, is one of the most well-known Chinese Lingnan-style painters. He has a permanent museum in Hong Kong. Her other teacher is one of the most famous landscape painters, Pu Hsin-Yu, cousin of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. She has learned from the best, and I believe I have, too. My teacher is in her 80s now and she’s living in California right now.

works:  Is the fame these people have in Hong Kong also there in mainland China?

Anita:  Yes. Chao Shao-Ang is very well known. Most of the Chinese who know art will know of him. He’s also well known in Japan and among overseas Chinese in the world. My teacher told me he donated 90 paintings to San Francisco Asian Art Museum. They are in their permanent collection.

works:  Okay. Is your teacher well known also?

Anita:  She is one of the most well known Lingnan masters after Chao Shao-Ang. But the younger people might not even know their names anymore. Lingnan- style painting used to be the most modern Chinese painting during the 19th century, but it’s no longer valued by the young generation. I want to change that.
My teacher is in her 80s and she just mailed me a painting. She’s extremely generous and very elegant. She always wears Chinese cheongsam, the traditional dress.
     I started learning from her when I was five. In her class, first of all, she makes you read poems. She made me read Confucius and memorize some of that. And in the second part of the class, you have to practice calligraphy. And then, because I was a young kid, she would serve me some cake.

works:  Nice.

Anita:  So I loved going to her. And then in the third part, she would do a demonstration. After her demonstration, I would start painting. So, I learned from her for more than ten years. Then one year she told me, “You don’t have to learn from me anymore, it’s time for you to learn some realist pencil drawing.” Because I believe—she believes the same thing—that a good artist has to know how to do realism before they go into abstract work.
     Some people have said there is no real abstraction in the entire world because everything we imagine is from everything we’ve seen, or from a story we’ve heard, so there is no real abstract work.
     So, if you don’t understand the real world, or if you don’t know how to use a brush, how are you going to go ahead and do really good abstract work? And for years and years I told myself, I have to master the art. I have to be as good as Chao Shao-Ang, in terms of skill.
     Because there is no eraser, once you put the brush on the paper, it’s done. Say I’m painting a large-scale tiger, if I make a mistake at the end, it’s gone. I just trash it. So it takes years and years of practice.

works:  This is a principle you hold to rigorously for yourself? One mistake and the whole thing is…

Anita: The whole thing is gone. Because if you’re a real good painter and you’re looking at my work—say Chao Shao-Ang is alive and he’s looking at my work, he will see the mistake—and I don’t want that mistake in my work.

works:  What would you say the value is to you, that strong discipline? It must be useful in some ways.

Anita:  When I look at Chinese painting these days, especially the modern art, it seems a lot of artists have rushed into it because of money. Many of them did not practice when they were young; with China’s economy and open-door policy, they just rushed into it. Or vice versa, there could be painters with a traditional art background creating harmony who gave up the core meaning of the original art form because now they want to be labeled as modern.
     I think contemporary art plays an important role in our society, and we do need traditional arts to adapt to the current time and culture and have it speak to the young minds. However, what really concerns me is that a lot of times the art is not for the right reasons. It’s what sells that matters to the artist, what’s trendy.
     We need to be able to stop and question more and see if we are staying true to ourselves. And if we are staying true to ourselves as artists, our individual personalities will shine through. Art that is created with the right reasons lasts. And I feel like any artist needs to know their tools first before moving to the next step. The skill—it’s just like writing a letter.
     These days, we’d rather type an email than write someone a sincere letter. The painting style I learned is an art form that I want to keep alive.
     I want my students to want to practice. I don’t want to force them to practice traditional art. That’s why, when I do modern traditional art, I have to have a good reason. I don’t want it to just sell to a gallery. I want to keep its original beauty and its original meaning.
     When I say “original meaning,” what is the most beautiful thing when we look at Chinese art? To me the brush is very important. You almost see the artist doing it in front of you, because when you look at the body of the bird, it’s just one stroke. And the angle, the amount of water, the amount of ink has to be very precise; you have to have a mental picture before you even paint. And when you look at a good painter’s work, you see they practiced for years and years. There’s no pencil drawing; you can’t draft it out. I want to keep this going, because it’s like keeping a beautiful tradition, not just for Chinese art, for human beings.
     When my kids go to school, they might be just using a keyboard, a mouse. They’re not going to be holding a brush. When I was young, when I went to class, we had to hold a calligraphy brush. There were calligraphy classes, and why aren’t we keeping them?
     It’s all because of how we value things as a society. So in Lingnan-style Guo Hua (Lingnan-style rice paper painting) there are people doing it, but not many people are pushing the limits.
     I want a modern art gallery to look at my work and think, “Why did we not take it seriously?” These are the arts that inspired modern art. These are the most abstract, most beautiful arts in our history. Why did we just trash it away? Just because this other one sells? I want people to see a new kind of Lingnan-style rice paper painting. Today I’m dealing with a completely different art system and a different audience, but it shouldn’t be rushed or forced; it should stay true to the present and have respect for its roots. But I have to push the limits of Lingnan Guo Hua. I feel like I am obligated, in a good way, to do this, because, first of all, I learned from the best Lingnan-style Guo Hua masters, I must honor their teaching and not give up on the beautiful art form. Secondly, my mom dedicated her whole life to making me an artist. She wanted to be an artist; she never became an artist. She’s a Chinese teacher teaching language, and she’s also a biologist. But because she’s a single mom, she could not afford to be an artist. She had to raise me.

works:  I  see. She raised you alone?

Anita:  Yes. My dad was never involved. And she wanted me to become an artist.

works:  Do you have siblings?

Anita:  No. I was born in Beijing. My mom and dad got married when she was teaching biology in Beijing.

works:  Are you part of the one-child policy?

Anita:  Yes, I was. That’s why I have no siblings.

works:  And being a girl, that’s…

Anita:  Yes. That’s why my dad, the family, did not like the fact that I’m a woman. That’s why the Nüshu was so inspiring to me, because as a woman, first of all, I’m from the one-child policy. I went to Hong Kong when I was three, but there’s still some memory.

works:  So, say a little bit more about how that worked. For Chinese families with one child to have a girl, there could be some sort of disappointment.

Anita:  They don’t want a girl, because you can’t continue your family name, and a lot of baby girls got abandoned. There are other reasons, too. China used to be a more farming, agricultural kind of country. But women also play an important role in the economy. Now you can have two children because they don’t have enough women, and the whole population is growing old. So China has realized, “We can’t do that anymore. We have to have women.” Also the economy is a lot better than before. People’s lives are no longer like they were in the past. People’s thinking is also different now.

works:  This is an amazing story, your mother raising you alone under those circumstances. What a gift.

Anita:  Yes. She loves me so much. I owe everything to her. She is an extremely intelligent and wise women. She somehow understood very early on that both Eastern and Western arts are equally important. So she believed that if I only studied Chinese painting, it’s not enough. I would just be stuck in history. No matter how great I was as a Chinese painter, I couldn’t spread the word to the world, because no one would understand.

works:  Okay. Now tell me, what is the word that you want to spread?

Anita:  The word is like what I told you earlier. I don’t want people to look at Chinese paintings, or especially Lingnan Guo Hua, and think it’s all the same, it’s just Chinese painting. I want them to look at it and think this has value as a tradition we want to keep. It’s not just an old painting style we want to give up and move on to modern art. Because I feel like Lingnan-style artists in this generation did not push the limits enough. We can’t just blame it on the art world, that it doesn’t care about traditional art. Perhaps we are the ones that didn’t reach out and already feel defeated. Perhaps we need to be open to changes with this art form.
     When I talk to my teacher, she says, “I do have a lot of students, but none of them are really doing art shows like you. None of them have a background like you.” I went to London when I was 16 to study art and design at Central Saint Martins. Then my mom said, “Okay. We’re going to continue our journey.” I have to be good in Western art, also, to be able to do what I do now.

works:  Did your mother stay in China when you went to London?

Anita:  Yes, she stayed in Hong Kong the whole time, and she pretty much gave up her whole life for me to become an artist.

works:  Can you try to say more about the deep value you see in this traditional way of painting?

Anita:  I think it’s related to my career as an art professor for so many years. Actually, I taught more design than art. I was teaching video editing, special effects, green screen, graphic design, advertising—and on the side, I did my traditional work. Sometimes the school asked me to do a demonstration, and when I looked at my students, I just realized, “How come they are so different than how I grew up?”
     When I grew up, my mom made me practice the piano, the violin, calligraphy, watercolor, pencil drawing and Chinese painting. It was almost like my life was all around doing these things. When I looked at my students, sometimes when they were talking to me, they were already on their cellphone texting. And when I was talking to them, they were clicking the mouse, raising the monitor. They did come to my art show back then, but I wondered, “What did you see?”
One might say, “Okay. Anita, this is beautiful.” But what did you see that I experienced?
     And also my teacher is very old now. She did something really great. She taught a lot of students, but how is that going to continue?
A year ago, I was kind of lost. I actually was praying and meditating. That was the first time that I ever prayed and meditated on what to paint. That day I decided, “I’m just going to be here sitting and thinking.” And that day, something really bizarre happened. Monet came to my mind—Monet’s Water Lilies. I don’t know why.
     I painted a lot of Chinese-style water lilies. I know Monet. I knew he did a lot of water lilies, but I never paid attention to it. So I started doing some research, and that weekend we went to an estate sale. I was going to buy some music albums and then the estate sale lady came towards me. She said, “This is for you.”
She was holding a book. I thought, “Why is that for me? I’m not buying a book.”
She said, “But it’s just for you.”
     And when I looked at it, it was Monet! I don’t know why. There’s something going on in the universe. Then when I opened the book there was an old newspaper clipping about Monet. I thought this person must have really loved Monet’s work to be cutting out a newspaper clipping and putting it in the book.

works:  Wow.

Anita:  So I went online and bought a little Monet pin, a water lily brooch.
     At that time, I didn’t have any work to show, and I didn’t know what to do. I knew I didn’t want to be stuck doing the old-style Chinese work. But I didn’t want to rush into modern art either, because there is some art that I look down on, to be quite honest—and
     I don’t want to be part of that type of work.
     So I had to have a reason. Then I told myself, “I’m going to wear this brooch to my first art show, and it’s going to be inspired by Monet.” That was at Zach’s, at Canessa Gallery.

works:  And when was this?

Anita:  The show that you went to is the show that I’m referring to. But it was a year ago when I told myself, “I’m going to be doing an art show inspired by Monet.”

works:  I see. That’s kind of amazing.

Anita:  So, it’s quite interesting how Impressionists
inspired my work.

works:  And the whole thing is kind of imponderable. You know?

Anita:  Yes. There was even a First Friday visitor who had travelled all the way from London to San Francisco and happened to be at my opening. She told me she could see the Monet influence in my works because she’d just come from a Monet show. I asked her what show? She said it was Monet: The Early Years at the Legion of Honor. She went to the Monet show before coming to see mine! I didn’t even know Monet was having a show in San Francisco. It’s quite amazing that it just happened to be at the same time and in the same city.

works:  Amazing. I mean, you were at an impasse. You didn’t know what to do and you meditated and prayed. Then some things happened; Monet came to you. Then you go to this estate sale, and this woman just comes over and gives you this book.

Anita:  And she gave it to me for free.

works:  Do you ponder these inexplicable things that happen so rarely?

Anita:  Yes. And obviously, I can’t explain any of them.

works:  No.

Anita:  However, it does hit me. It does make me wonder, “Why am I called to be an artist?” If I don’t do art, I’m depressed. When I do art, good things happen to me. My mom used to say, “You’re having a bad day. Why don’t you paint? Something good’s going to happen to you.” And it’s so true. I am an artist, and I have to do my work.

works:  Have you ever heard of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky? He died in 1986, I think, and only made about eight films. He would say, “There are real artists, and then there other people making art.” He meant that the real artist is a poet. “Poet” a big word for Tartovsky. Does that interest you? The way he thinks of what it means to be a poet?

Anita: I’m actually doing an art project inspired by Chinese calligraphy. I called it Natures Poem. I will show you later. It’s all pictures, but the format looks like calligraphy, because visual communication, I believe, is a stronger communication than verbal language, in a way.
     When we look at, say, a painting, the painting is not asking you to do something verbally. It’s not forcing you, “Go do this, go do that. You have to believe in this. You have to believe in that.” No. Good art is talking to your soul, and you want to do something because you felt something. It talks to the senses, and to the soul, also. It’s not just talking to your ear.

works:  Yes, and poetry can take many forms; it’s not limited to words. Do you agree?

Anita:  Yes. Yes. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about what’s in the news and about what’s going to happen to art funding. It’s pretty sad because art is so important, and how could that happen? So, sometimes I ask myself—and it’s back to your first question: “Why do I want to do this?” Right? What is the meaning? What is a successful artist to me? What do I want to see by the end of my life? Do I want to just be famous? Do I want to sell a lot of paintings?
At the end, the answer is “No.” Sometimes that is just luck, I believe. Sometimes you are just a good artist doing your own work, and it makes you happy. It makes you who you are.
     I can’t really answer what I want at the end of my life, but I can answer I want to stay true to myself.
I just want to keep doing art, because it makes me who I am. If I don’t do it, I don’t know who I am; I don’t have an identity.

works:  Just before I came here this morning, I was reading one of Tartovsky’s interviews near the end of his life. He’d become quite famous so he’d encountered a lot of the same questions. And I think he had clarified his own views. In response to a question about his art, he said, “Every work of art is a prayer.”
     That’s a very boiled-down answer, and it’s a very big statement. I just thought I would run that by you.

Anita:  Yes. I used to be Catholic, a more open-minded Catholic, I suppose. Growing up in Hong Kong, you see many religions. I went to many Buddhist restaurants, and you see calligraphy on the wall; it’s really beautiful and peaceful.
     The reason I am now open to everything is because some of my colleagues and friends from Philadelphia and New York—artists and art professors—all have different backgrounds, different religions. I feel that, as artists, we have to be open. And I’m still young, I want to be exploring everything. I don’t want to think, “Okay. I’m Catholic, therefore I’m correct. I’m right.”
     Islam could be correct and right, too. Buddhism could be correct and right. There are so many Muslims; there are so many Catholics; there are so many Jewish; there are so many people that believe in Buddha… They all have a strong feeling and a strong connection. Why are we judging each other? Why can’t we respect each other’s choice? Who we are and what we put back into the world is what matters the most.

works:  I’m kind of inspired by Tartovsky and how the best way he found to describe the deepest meaning of a work of art was to say that a work of art is a prayer. Now with the reductive perspective of scientific materialism we live with today, a lot of people might have no respect for a thought like that.

Anita: In fact, a lot of people might be against it.

works:  Yes.

Anita:  That’s why as artists, we have to be responsible. It’s like words. You think twice about what you are going to say to a person. Your art is saying something, too, so you have to be responsible in your art as well.
     When we look at the art field right now, there are many good artists, however, there are some who are just, “I don’t care. This is what’s trendy.”

works:  Right. I’m touched when I meet an artist who is coming from this deep place that I could call poetry. I think you probably know what I’m talking about.

Anita:  Yes.

works:  This makes me think of Enrique Martínez Celaya. I interviewed him several years ago; he was the first artist I’d heard speaking about ethics. Now, there’s a lot of didactic art, and that’s fine, but it’s not the way Enrique was talking about ethics. You’re saying that in your work, you have to be responsible. Would you say a little bit about what that means for you?

Anita:  I feel like art shapes our society, and there are a lot of young people trying to learn in the world. You can’t just put your art out there and not be responsible for what you’re trying to say.
     When I look at modern art now, there are a lot of disappointments. It almost feels like they don’t care about the beauty in a human soul. That’s why I want to keep traditional art. Because when we look at, say, an old Chinese painting, we might see a poet surrounded by nature. The mountain is huge, and the poet is so tiny. He has respect for his surroundings.
     When you look at art today, you rarely see a little tiny person surrounded by nature. The intention for those traditional landscape paintings was actually not for exhibiting. They were meant to be put it in your room. You would go into the room and face the painting for hours and meditate and see what you think.
     Growing up as Chinese, we have to have a lot of respect for our parents, for our teacher and for the art, for the art form. So, when I look at the young generation of painters, sometimes I wonder, “What do you have respect for? Do you really respect what you are doing? The subject matter? If it’s your lifestyle, if it’s your true personality, you want it to shine. That’s great.” However there are many who just follow the mainstream. We need to think deeper as artists, most importantly be true to ourselves. What are we putting into our society as humans?
     Now there’s an iPhone photography trend. You could post anything and say, “I’m a photographer.” And also you are seeing a lot of work on the Internet, and many people just start calling themselves artists.

works:  What do you think young people are missing?

Anita:  When I taught figure drawing class, or Chinese painting, I always made my students hold a brush. With a brush they could be very expressive and the brush combined with ink could bring out unimaginable creativities. Just one color. You can add water to dilute it as much as you want, or you can make the ink thick and glossy on your paper. They do show interest: “Wow, I’ve never done this before!” But they just can’t keep on going, some of them. It’s their short attention to things that I’m worried about.

works:  Right.

Anita:  It’s the same with art these days. When we look at some art, it’s great now, because maybe it’s talking about the news or the pop culture. However, it’s not going to really last. So with my students back then, they definitely did have the interest. It’s just, can you make them practice every day, five hours a day for ten years? I don’t know.

works:  That’s a huge question. Life today is so packed in a superficial way with so much noise and distractiom that slowing down and going deeper takes something else—something intentional, I’d say.

Anita:  Yes.

works:  There are not many exemplars in the public eye for that. So where do we find places where we can be brought along in order to develop a relationship with something that’s deeper? These young people, how are they going to find this today?

Anita:  Right. That’s why I always ask my students, “Have you seen Mona Lisa’s face?” They all said, “Yes, of course. Why would you even ask me?” Then I ask my second question, “Which Mona Lisa’s face are you referring to? Is it on your screen, on your cellphone, on your computer, or are you facing the real painting? Did you make your way to the museum to actually look at the Mona Lisa painting?”
     There may be two of them that raise their hand. Some of them actually said, “I was kind of disappointed when I looked at the real painting because it’s so small. I imagined it so big.”
     It reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s article on the age of reproduction. A long time ago, when we learned art, we had to learn from the original; we had to learn from books as handwritten copies.
     Now, with the Internet, I feel like it’s bringing everybody closer, the whole world closer. You know about Chinese. I know about say, the British. We’re all one culture, and there’s good and bad in this. For China, being so open now to the world, they’re starting to enjoy red wine. They’re starting to enjoy the Western-style art gallery. But how about keeping our own traditions?
     Going back to what we were talking about, there are many artists doing Chinese art, but you have to really think about it before you push into another style. I was on the phone with my teacher the other day and she said although there are so many people doing “Chinese art,” a large percentage are making Chinese art look bad. I cannot agree more with her. You need to give it time, give it thinking. I’d rather not do art for a year and really think about what I want to do, and then do something good, instead of rushing into it:
     “I have to get on this trend and compete. I have toget into a gallery.” I just don’t have that character.

works:  I feel that we need to hear this. We need to hear from people who are still in touch with what Enrique would call an ethical relationship with their art. And I think you’re telling me, when you put a piece of art out there, you want it to be connected with the deepest things you’ve come to.

Anita:  Yes. And also, I don’t want to disappoint Chao Shao-Ang. I don’t want to disappoint my teacher.

works:  You want to honor something.

Anita:  Yes. I want to honor them. I want to honor myself. I want to honor my mom. All that effort that my mom put into me. She sent me to the West for a reason. She sent me out and she’s been alone in Hong Kong since I was 16. Now I’m 38. I never went back. So, she gave up her whole life for me. That’s why I have to… [some emotion comes up, we pause]
     That’s why I have to do it, and sometimes it’s very hard, because as I said, I don’t want to rush into something. By the end of my life, I want to tell myself I have tried to honor this art form.
     My mom, she’s also a very good person, a good teacher. She’s actually quite famous in her field.

works:  I hope you’ll have a chance to go to visit her.

Anita:  Yes. I do visit her every year. She’s actually having a lot of fun now that she’s retired. She told me, “I dedicated my whole life into raising you into an artist; now it’s my turn!”

works:  Beautiful.

Anita:  Yes. I never cried in any interview. I’m sorry.

works:  I appreciate your openness.

Anita:  If you ask me one question, like, “Why do you want to continue doing this?” Even if my art doesn’t sell, even if I never make money, I still want to do this. Even if people laugh about it, I still want to do it. It’s for myself and for my mom, and for my teacher. For the people that I love.

works:  It’s love that’s underneath all of this.

Anita:  Yes. I have a strong love for my mom. She knows I’m not going to become a doctor that makes a lot of money, so what is she trying to do? My grandfather, actually, his family is wealthy, very famous in antique trading. But there’s a Chinese saying, “Wealth will only go three generations, and then it’s going to die off.” So my mom values art more than anything. She told me she wanted to become an artist. She just loved to draw and paint when she was young, but her parents never gave her the chance, they never helped her.
     She had to pay for her own school fee. She had to raise me, and be able to send me to London and the US. I have four degrees, they are all paid for by my mom, and they’re all art and design degrees.

works:  That’s kind of amazing. Now you were in Philadelphia for a while, right?

Anita:  Yes.

works:  It’s too bad you didn’t meet Lily Yeh. She’s based there. She goes to devastated places and uses art to heal the community. She starts with the kids, and gets them painting something like the wall of a building. Then the adults get interested. Pretty soon, the community is involved. She taps into the universal impulse people have to create something and uses that impulse to repair the torn fabric of the community. She stays long enough to make sure the healing is really established. It’s very pure what she’s doing.

Anita:  It’s interesting how some really great artists are interested in education. They are interested in spreading the word to the young and using their art as a tool to do something greater.

works:  Yes. Now I wanted to ask you about these folded paper pieces. What do you call this series?

Anita:  Paper sculpture: Gathering the Famous

works:  Would you say something about these?

Anita:   I’m inspired by Picasso. Here’s the young Picasso and the old Picasso. He had a distortion period, so I’m using paper like clay to form sculptures of Picasso. Paper sculpture is very casual. Is it art, or is it paper waste? So with the subject matter I want to question the viewers: what are you seeing in politicians? Do you really know them, or is your knowledge paper thin? Even though these are casual, it took me a long time to form each piece. This was just for fun, this project. Maybe I watched too much news and needed to let my feeling out. These are almost like meditations. I’m not into political stuff. Life is too short, and I need to focus on my art.

works:  Let’s talk about your mirror pieces. Some of them remind me of Rorschach tests used in psychology. You’d gotten the idea by seeing some of Andy Warhol’s work that he did when he was in the hospital. You’ve painted these in a traditional Chinese way, you said earlier, but they don’t look so traditional.

Anita:  Right. Most people, when they look at traditional Chinese painting, they can’t tell this is Lingnan-style. They just think this is no different than Japanese painting or Korean painting. They just think, it’s a rice paper painting. But I’m doing Lingnan-style Guo Hua. Most people don’t take enough time to appreciate the art form. They just say, “Okay, this is just a bunch of Chinese painting.” I want them to stop and look at the painting.

works:  So stopping and looking at the painting, they already are going to have a deeper experience.

Anita:  Another thing they’ll see is “How come this is similar to graphic design? How come it’s not traditional art?” But it’s painted with a traditional style, so they need to ask themselves, “Am I judging it too fast?”

works:  Well this is a powerful graphic image (not shown) that’s both beautiful and a little ominous. So what is it about that image? Do you like this image?

Anita:  Yes.

works:  Can you talk about that?

Anita:  I feel like I’ve become a lot more abstract than before. I feel the mirror effect is very powerful to the mind. I don’t know why, but it is. When we see a mountain in front of a lake with the reflection, we look and find, “Wow, the sky is connecting the lake to the land,” and it’s so beautiful to us! When we look at someone’s face we’re actually looking at a mirror. And if you cover up the left and look at the right side, you find out that the right and the left are very different. So there’s something very powerful about the mirror effect, to me, and as an artist I want to make use of it, because it grabs the viewer’s attention.

works:  I could look at that just purely as a design. It has some representational aspects. It’s a bird, right? [yes] But it’s kind of abstract, and it’s powerful just simply as a design. So can you say something just about the appeal of a compelling design?

Anita:  Yes. I’m definitely interested in design in fine art. So this is a painting with both fine art and graphic design. I feel, first of all, the contrast between the white and the solid black, I think that grabs your attention. And also the mirror effect there’s some sort of abstraction that’s being centered. The bird is almost pulling it out. They are flying away. It make you just wonder, what is it? But I think the most important message here is that it’s a traditional art that is being modified into almost like a graphic design. But we don’t usually do that with traditional art. I think it’s related to my background. My art reflects who I am. I lived in Hong Kong, London and here in the United States. So it reflects me.
     Also there is a lot of symbolic meaning in Chinese painting. For instance, the crow actually takes care of the youngsters and the youngsters take care of the older bird. They are always living together.

works:  I see. You’ve lived in three different cultures and that’s going to be a part of everything you do. This is something you’ve thought about.

Anita:  I always think about that. What’s my identity? And sometimes I can find it in my work, because I realized that in my work, I don’t have to define myself as a certain race or where I’m from. In my art, this is me. I speak three languages, Mandarin, Cantonese and English. But if I put something in language, people will say, okay, you are Chinese or you are British-Chinese— you are American-Chinese. But no! I am just who I am. And you can see it in my painting.
     I feel like there’s a lot I can do in the future. Now I have the skill and can be more expressive with my brush. But the main goal, I think, is to keep Lingnan style Guo Hua alive, more alive than ever.

      
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 

 

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