Li’s discussion on how she came to her painting process added an entirely new dimension to the art.
Ying Li delivered an inspiring artist lecture at Phillip’s Hall to kick off an exhibition of her paintings called “Elements.” This exhibition will be on display in the Alexandre Hogue Gallery until the end of the fall semester. Li worked with graduate students to install her works and visited studio art classes to speak to students about their work.
Born in Beijing, China, during the leadership of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, Li described only seeing monotonous tones wherever she went but always “yearning for color.” During the Cultural Revolution that started in 1966, her father, a professor of Russian literature, was accused of hindering the revolution and sent to a labor camp, where he stayed for 10 years.
Since she had always loved to draw, when schools started reopening in the ‘70s, Li decided that she wanted to go to college and learn to be a painter. However, she discovered she wouldn’t even be allowed to apply because her father was considered an enemy of the state.
In her frustration, Li found out where a school was giving art exams and decided to go anyways. She described angrily scrawling a drawing when a professor came and stood behind her. “I thought he was going to throw me out of the room, but he didn’t. Later, he fought for me to get into college,” she told the audience.
After graduating with a degree in painting from the Anhui Teachers University, she was immediately hired to teach there. Six years later, she moved to the United States, where her husband lived and taught Chinese Studies at Rutgers University in New York; Li recalled him picking her up from the airport when she first landed. As they drove, the sun was setting and Li could “see tremendous light from the city … I was mesmerized, I’d never seen that volume of light.”
In her first week in New York, Li visited the Museum of Modern Art and saw paintings by famous artists like Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso for the first time. Even though she was amazed by the beauty of these new works, she felt like she couldn’t see where she fit in but wanted to find a way to break apart from her past and embrace the new things she was finding.
Even though she was still in the process of learning English, Li applied and was accepted to a graduate program at the Parson’s School of Design. During this time, she remembers painting more than she ever had before, claiming, “I didn’t need much language — something about the visual image can just connect.” She was able to continue to expand her horizons by visiting museums and seeing exhibitions that moved her art more into expressionism and abstraction.
In 1997, Li began to teach at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. The beautiful campus inspired her to start working on more landscapes. She has traveled all over the world to teach in places like Italy, Switzerland and Spain. While visiting, she can take time to paint the unique landscapes. In her studio in Umbria, Italy, she describes feeling that “space just keeps going to infinity” and that “the sky is closer to you than the land.”
When painting landscapes, Li has found that she is able to connect to her Chinese culture even though she is still haunted by her experiences during the Cultural Revolution. She describes the idea that every individual is “part of an enormous energy and space and chaos and unknown” nature that is related to Chinese art and philosophy. Even though humans and nature are inherently connected, the individual is a very small part of an immense universe. This ideology is reflected in Chinese monumental landscape painting styles that depict people dwarfed by massive and beautiful natural imagery.
Li also discussed her methods and how she finds inspiration in nature. Sometimes, a certain area or object would strike her, and she would spend a month revisiting the same scene, repainting it over and over. Rather than simply repainting something like a tree or a boat though, she described feeling like she was “painting something unpaintable: the atmosphere, the temperature, a breeze.” This intention led Li to paint more abstract scenes, depicting the feeling of something like a landscape rather than trying to paint reality.
Although she primarily lives in New York City and Haverford, Pennsylvania, Li has taught, lectured and won awards all over the world. She has had exhibitions in the National Academy Museum in New York, the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy, and the Museum of Rochefort-en-Terre in Brittany, France. She also won awards from Dartmouth College, Enterprise House Art Colony in Ireland, the Valparaiso Foundation in Spain and the University of Tulsa’s Artist-in-Residence awards.
Li plans to continue to paint until she is no longer physically able to. She doesn’t know what direction she would like her art to move towards, but thinks this is what pushes her to continue to create. She identifies a “challenge to paint things differently, not like anyone else has done it” as a motivation. Not knowing what she will do next, she believes, creates a sense of mystery that can only be fulfilled if she keeps challenging herself to find new ways to paint what she sees and feels.
The exhibition at the Hogue Gallery displays a combination of Li’s technical abilities and the innovation of her creative style. Her drawings are intense portraits that capture personality and emotion though a simple color palette. This is completely contrasted in her thickly-applied oil paint to create bright and vibrant images. Paintings like “Mystery City” and “Valley Onsernone” demonstrate Li’s unique methodology and use of color to abstractly express emotions and recall feelings. In each work, viewers are not simply transported to a different location but to a different atmosphere altogether.