The Art of Individuality
Ying Li survived the tyranny of China's Cultural Revolution to find her
own voice as an artist.
"I didn't understand the political turmoil, I just knew the whole
world was upside-down."
"I'd never seen so much light in my life, In China everything went
dark at eight o'clock!"
It’s Ying Li’s fourth summer teaching at the International
School of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture in Umbria, Italy (where, this
year, four students from Haverford and Bryn Mawr attended thanks to Li’s
recommendation), and she still finds new things to paint among the familiar
landscape of the small medieval hill town. “It’s breathtaking,”
she says, “looking down on the valley from up high.” Painting
from the window of her studio, she shields herself from the heat of the
Umbria summer and watches the sunflowers change color over the course
of six weeks, deepening from green to lemon yellow. “My first year
here, I was so excited I just wanted to paint everything,” she says.
“Now I’m finally getting somewhere beyond the surface.”
Later in the summer, the associate professor of fine arts will spend four
weeks at an art colony in the French town of Rochefort-en-terre, run by
the French government and the Maryland Institute of Art. She’ll
continue to create colorful, lyrical paintings in the fluid, abstract
expressionist style for which she has become known. For a woman who survived
the oppression and chaos of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the freedom
to paint any subject she chooses, in her individual style, is a hard-won
and much valued gift.
Born in Beijing, Li spent her childhood and early adolescence drawing,
painting and playing with color. She used to page through the Russian
magazines of her father, a professor of Russian literature, and was awed
by the pictures of the Hermitage Museum exhibits in St. Petersburg. She
admired works by Matisse and Picasso before she was aware of their fame.
“I thought they were so beautiful and colorful,” she remembers.
When she was a young teenager in 1965, the Cultural Revolution began under
the leadership of Mao Tse Tung, who wanted to mobilize the country’s
youth to effect policy changes in China that would make the educational
and cultural systems less elitist and “bourgeois.” In 1968,
when Li was 16, herfather was arrested and sent to a forced labor camp
along with many artists and scholars whose actions were deemed elitist.
She would not see him for the next 10 years.
Li and her mother were placed in the country, where they lived and worked
as peasants. “I didn’t understand the political turmoil,”
she says. “I just knew the whole world was upside-down.”
During these tumultuous and difficult years, art was her salvation. “When
I was painting or drawing something I could be in my own world,”
she says, “and forget what was happening around In 1977, after the
fall of the infamous “Gang of Four,” the tide began to turn
in a positive direction as colleges and universities across China re-opened
after 10 years of darkness. At this point, Li was back in the city to
receive treatment for a broken leg that couldn’t be healed in the
country. She was all too excited about the possibility of attending college;
as students were not allowed to apply anywhere outside their home provinces,
she was fortunate that the school in her province, Anhui Teachers University
in Hefei, had an art program. But the shadow of the Revolution proved
a bigger stumbling block than she had anticipated: People with “bad
political backgrounds”—like Li, whose father had been arrested—could
not even take the entrance exams.
Her first reaction to this news was grief. “I had a breakdown,”
she says. “I thought this was my only chance to study art.”
Later, a boiling anger fueled her determination to right this injustice.
She found out where the exam for Anhui’s art program was being held
and arrived at the classroom with sketchbook in hand, sat by the door,
and started to draw. “I didn’t even care what I was drawing,”
she laughs. “I was desperate. It was a protest.” The professor
administering the exam wandered around the classroom observing students’
work; when he reached Li, he stopped and watched her for a few minutes.
“I thought he was going to throw me out, but he
let me be,” she says. “And later, he changed my life.”
The professor liked her work so much he fought to get her admitted to
the university, braving a storm of criticism from authorities and risking
his job. In the end, he won out. “It was a miracle,” says
At the university, she painted only as she was instructed, in the style
of social realism and with subjects that glorified socialism. She was
trained to recreate exactly what she saw in front of her, with little
room for interpretation, and was told that the artist was secondary to
the state. Still, bits of Li’s own voice crept into some of her
paintings, bringing them under fire from Communist party secretaries who
were sent to the colleges to ensure political correctness. She recalls
one painting in particular that she considered “correct” by
party standards; it portrayed a group of recently graduated students heading
to work. She set it along the banks of the Yangtze River and even emphasized
the Nanking-Yangtze bridge construction project in the background as a
symbol of the new nation and a testament to China’s reconstruction.
However, in the foreground, a woman in a yellow dress raised authorities’
eyebrows. “They thought she looked too bourgeois,” she says.
“They didn’t know why she would wear a dress to go to work.”
She was forced to discard the painting when authorities refused to show
it in museums. She created an entirely new portrait of a female electrician
in a winter coat atop a mountain, which assuaged her superiors.
After nine years at Anhui Teachers University as both a student and a
teacher, Li felt dissatisfied with her work. “I knew I wanted to
paint something,” she says, “I just didn’t know what.”
In China she had no exposure to original Western paintings, which museums
wouldn’t collect because it was considered too counter-revolutionary.
But in 1981, part of the West came directly to her when she met her husband,
Chinese historian Michael Gasster, who came to the country for a conference.
He happened upon Li painting at Yellow Mountain, a spot she favored because
“I think it’s the most beautiful mountain in the world.”
They struck up a friendship that deepened as they wrote to each other
after his return to the States. A year later he came back to China, they
became engaged, and they married after a year-long wait to get marriage
permission from the government. When he flew back home to teach, she followed
a few months later.
She left all of her paintings behind in China. “For practical reasons,
I only wanted to carry what I could use for making art,” she says,
“but I also knew I could do better work.”
When Li landed at New Jersey’s Newark Airport, the abundant light
emanating from the New York City skyline overwhelmed her. She was even
more awestruck as she and her husband drove straight into Manhattan. “I’d
never seen so much light in my life,” she says. “In China
everything went dark at eight o’clock!” The day after her
arrival, she viewed original Western art for the first time at the Museum
of Modern Art.
She knew no English, so once she was settled in her new home she enrolled
in an ESL class at Manhattan Community College and New York University.
She later entered Parsons’ MFA program to further her education
and relearn her craft. “I had a sensational feeling,” she
says. “It was liberating. I painted with huge brushes and thick
paint, with so much force and action.” She was greatly inspired
by a retrospective of William de Kooning, one of America’s greatest
abstract expressionist painters. “I thought, ‘This is how
I want to paint."
Li received her MFA from Parsons in 1987, and 10 years later she joined
Haverford as a visiting assistant professor; she was promoted to associate
professor in 2003. Her paintings have been displayed in galleries throughout
the mid-Atlantic (including Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery) and in Ireland,
Taiwan, Italy, France, and her native China. Last year she received a
Lindback Minority Junior Career Enhancement Award, and is using the funds
to continue her research on comparative religious art. “I want to
compare the portrayals of religious spirit and stories in Buddhist and
Western art,” she says. She has already explored the sites of 484
Buddhist art caves in northwest China, in the midst of the desert along
the old Silk Road. The cave paintings are in Dunhuang, once a major stop
on the Silk Road, and span a period of more than 1,300 years, beginning
in the fourth century.
This project will be the focus of her 2003-2004 academic leave, and it
will not conflict with her apinting schedule. "In fact," she
says, "its purpose id for me to expressin paintings that I am doing
my interpretation and commentary on the religious art I studied in China,
Russia, France, and Italy." And the joy of painting and studyin subjects
of her choice and hers alone is what Ying Li treasures.