About the artist
I was born in Shanghai in 1979, the first year of China’s One Child Policy. Like many of my peers from that generation, as an only child, I felt a deep sense of privilege, as if I was born for a purpose. At the time China was experiencing the aftermath of the chaotic Cultural Revolution, and my parents were obligated to work in an impoverished city in An Hui province. Not long after my first birthday, my parents sent me back to Shanghai to live with my grandparents for better living conditions and better education. My grandfather was a retired factory director, but suffered serious brain damage during the Cultural Revolution that left him with frequent seizures and symptoms of Alzheimers disease. My grandmother had been an art professor in the architecture department of Tong Ji University. She was an enthusiastic and beloved teacher to her students, and the very first teacher in my life.
My grandmother got me interested in art when I was in kindergarten. Even though there were no grand art exhibitions in Shanghai at the time, my grandmother never missed a chance to take me to see the work of local artists whenever she could. She would seek out all kinds of exhibitions and through them introduce me to different mediums of art, from watercolor to oil painting, and from sculpture to traditional Chinese artwork. We would stroll home and begin to sketch from our memory the pieces we found most interesting. In my memory, I always see my grandmother poised at her easel, painting flowers and birds on a large sheet of rice paper as the sunshine bathed her work in golden light. I’m there by her side, playing with her many brushes, and from time to time she takes my hand in hers and guides me as I practice my strokes. My passion for drawing and painting has never faded because my grandmother left that door opened enough for me to walk through and discover what lays beyond.
In the years that followed I was thrust into the traditional Chinese education system, but I kept my dream of becoming an artist alive. I would still draw and paint from time to time with the encouragement of my grandmother. In the 1980’s many of my parents’ generation were leaving China to find work in other countries, and in 1987 my parents’ student visas for Japan were approved. They left me and my grandparents not knowing when they would be back, and took with them a small suitcase filled with their dreams and just 300 dollars in their pocket. I remember my father’s words as he went: “study hard, otherwise there will be no future for you.”
I threw myself into my studies, but the sense of purpose that I had began to fade along with those golden memories of my childhood. My sketchbooks were replaced with piles of school workbooks, and my grandmother was occupied with my grandfather’s increasingly frequent seizures. One day as I was taking a break from my homework, I pulled out my old sketchbooks. Turning through the pages I was immediately returned in my mind to those days wandering through art exhibitions and sketching people in the park with my grandmother. I knew at that moment that the traditional Chinese education I was receiving was not for me, I was going to be an artist. My grandmother could not have been happier when I told her of my decision, my parents on the other hand were clearly not happy.
One month before my college entrance exam my parents told me that I was moving to live with them in Japan. When I arrived, my father explained that he had enrolled me in a language school, and told me to forget studying art and prepare for a traditional college education. I realized quickly that between my class schedule and part time job to pay my tuition, there was no time for my art. When I graduated, I decided to stay in Japan and find work, I had become fascinated by Japanese culture and it’s appreciation for aesthetic simplicity.
In the many years after leaving my grandmother, she never stopped encouraging me to pursue my dreams, and follow my heart. When my grandfather died, she began to travel from place to place visiting her former students. She would send me postcards from each location, always with this message: “Remember my sweet child, it is never too late to start something new.”
Years later I met my future husband in Shanghai, and I moved back to China to be reunited with my grandmother. By this time she was already very old and weak, but on a good day with sunshine, she would once again take out her brush and paint. She died at 93, the same year I was engaged. Among her belongings, the one thing I decided to keep was a self portrait that she painted in oil on canvas. At once casual and elegant, just as I remember her.
I didn’t pick up drawing again until last year when I started this project. My skill has not really improved over the years, but my intuition and passion for composition has not changed. As I draw now, I realize that the sense of purpose I had in my youth was not inborn, but was instilled in me by my grandmother. I feel now that she is reminding me of something that was once so valuable to me, I truly find joy and contentment when I draw. In the meditative moment of drawing, I am at peace with myself, and the most precious thing is that I am with my grandmother again.