Painting the Colors of Freedom
There was just too much life in this mysterious woman in the yellow dress walking in the foreground of Ying Li's otherwise careful painting.
As the woman strolled confidently along the banks of the Yangtze River, she held her head too high and she wore her bright dress with far too much authority. Although the massive Nanking-Yangtze River bridge construction project stood in the background of the painting - a necessary monument to China's growing prosperity under Mao Tse Tung - the unknown woman's spirit towered far above the mere bridge.
Too far: The Chinese cultural authorities did not like the woman in the painting one bit. And they forbade it to be shown in any museum.
"They thought she was too bourgeois," explains Li as she holds the slide of her 25-year-old painting toward the bright skylight of her studio on Haverford College's campus.
"They told me I would have to change it if I wanted to show it. But I couldn't do it. My eyes were just doing what they were supposed to do, they were seeing things that were beautiful and they were being faithful to me as an artist."
If it wasn't for that defiant woman in the yellow dress it, would be hard to find a connection between most of Ying Li's early work and the vivid abstract paintings and line drawings that grace her studio walls today. Currently a visiting assistant professor of fine art at Haverford, even she finds the changes in her work astonishing.
Twenty five years ago, as an art student in China, Li painted as she was instructed: in the careful style of social realism and on subjects that glorified the tenets of socialism. She painted monuments to bridges and other construction projects, and, most striking of all, she painted colossal portraits of Mao.
"You painted for the government and you painted for the party. Everything had a political purpose," Li explains. "After I finished a painting, every piece had to go to the government examiners to make sure it supported the party."
The paintings were exercises in clarity: Li notes that she and her fellow students were trained to precisely mimic what they saw in front of them with little room for interpretation beyond the party line. The shading was to be perfect, the dimension and perspective as realistic as possible. But, the artist, she was told, was to always remain secondary to the subject of the paintings - the state.
"In China it was no good to show your emotions in the work," Li explains, noting the primacy and the individuality of the human form meant little in comparison to the greater ends of the party.
But somehow, the lady in the yellow dress got painted anyway. And the liberating spirit in that painting has been with Li ever since, both in her art and throughout her life.
Ying Li now paints abstract paintings of people and nature that swirl with light and color - so laden with her own vitality, the thick layers of paint rise up off the canvas in swaths of joy. On one wall of her studio, her line drawings of nudes show an immediacy of feeling and embody the act of a true first impression.
And her work is no longer forbidden to be seen. She has shown her work in both group and single shows throughout the United States and has caught the attention of critics at Artforum, The New Yorker and Art in America.
Ironically, Ying Li began sketching and painting to control her sadness.
In 1968, at the age of 16, her family was split apart by Chinese authorities. Li's father, a college professor, was a specialist in Russian literature and had worked under the Gou Min Dong regime just prior to the country's turn to Communism. Like thousands of artists and scholars during China's infamous "Cultural Revolution," his activities were deemed elitist and a threat to China's socialist ideals. As punishment, he was sent to a forced labor camp and Li, her sister and her mother were placed in separate re-education camps in the Chinese countryside where they lived and worked as peasants.
To pass the drudgery and the loneliness, Ying Li began drawing. She focused her untrained eye on the natural beauty around her. Five years later, she had a sketchbook full of work, but little promise for a future.
"In China, your family had to have the right political background to even be allowed to go through a very strict and tough competition to get into college. With my family history and my untrained experience I was not qualified to take the exams," she says. "But I went anyway, and I hung out with my sketch pad just outside the door. I sat down and began to draw and this professor came by, and he looked at what I was doing and he happened to like my work."
He liked it so much he pressed for Li's admittance to the university despite her family's history. For Li, it was a huge break, and for her professor it was a huge risk to take.
"I was so happy to be painting," she remembers. "I worked like crazy. I felt so lucky. Even when I was working on the Mao portraits, I thought at least I was painting. I wasn't working in the fields growing sweet potatoes."
Despite producing work that sometimes was considered too bourgeois or individual, her luck stayed with her in China. The notorious Gang of Four fell just before Li graduated from the university which enabled her to land a coveted teaching position.
"Timing has always been everything in my life," Li says with a smile.
She taught in China for another six years, but despite her greater freedom, Li says she felt lost as an artist in a country where personal expression was devalued in the political and social culture.
In 1983, knowing only a few words of English, she immigrated to the United States to start over. In a gutsy gesture, she left all of her paintings behind. A day later, she realized she had done the right thing. There was no need for her old paintings anymore. Her vision as an artist had already changed forever.
She remembers: "I landed at Newark Airport, and it was night and I could see all of the lights of New York City. It was an absolutely fantastic sight - like a dream. In those days everything in China closed at 8 p.m., so I had never seen anything like this. The next day my husband took me to the Museum of Modern Art and I stood in shock in front of Cezanne's Bather. I just couldn't believe it. It was the first time I had ever seen any Western art outside of a reproduction in a book. And I remember I stood up in front of this amazing pure painting, and the tears just rained down my face: I was thinking, 'this is great. Now I can really work.' "
Work in the United States was not easy at first. Li says she struggled the next few years, overwhelmed not only with the infinite directions her art could take, but by her own training which valued control and technique over a personal vision.
She enrolled in the Parsons School of Design MFA program where, at first, her professors were often left cold by her work, but amazed by her technical training. Despite a loss in confidence, she didn't give up.
"The love to paint really just kept me going and I kept looking for things I really wanted to do," she says.
Under the tutelage of her passionate teacher Leland Bell, she painted her first breakthrough: an abstract five-foot tall portrait, aptly titled, "Mary." The painting was taller than her. Her professors stood in awe.
"See how open and expressive she is," Li says proudly as she holds the slide up to the bright skylight. A world of color and emotion suddenly shines through.