Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Artist Ying Li, currently the chair of Haverford’s Fine Arts department, gave a lecture last Thursday, followed immediately by a List Gallery reception. Li is the 2010 Donald Jay Gordon Visiting Artist and Lecturer; her work will be exhibited in List through the end of February. Li graduated from and taught at Anhui Teachers University in China before receiving an M.F.A. from Parsons School of Design in New York.
Li was born in Beijing in 1951, and came of age during the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1965-77). During her teenage years, she witnessed the arrest and placement of her father in “re-education camps”; she would not see him again for 10 years. She herself was sent to poor farm areas in the Anhui province, where she was forced to endure hard labor for 5 years, painting propaganda on walls that glorified the Communist party. Eventually, the repression eased and schools were re-opened, giving Li the opportunity to attend Anhui Teacher’s University.
During Li’s lecture, she spoke of her growing curiosity and fascination with Western art as she was trapped living a comfortable but monotonous life, painting the same picturesque “red-cheeked, perfect face.” She described a passion within her that yearned for color and expression.
Upon immigrating to the United States, Li’s first destination was New York City. She described the transition as driving into another world, one of light and color. Li saw her first piece of original Western art at the Museum of Modern Art and heard live jazz music; but, in the midst of her bliss and amazement, trying to discover her place in the world proved deeply confusing. Having to re-adjust from a world where everything was clearly categorized and defined—good or bad, right or wrong—she was now in America, where she saw possibility for all shades of grey and options in between.
Li’s journey in discovering herself involved many people and many destinations, each experience influencing and becoming part of her. As an artist, Li strives to attain the “Spirit Resonance,” a transferring of the artist into her work. She sees the strokes of her brush as a means of expressing different feelings and atmospheres, as notes of music do; she feels a deep attachment with the subjects of her work. Li described this bond by sharing a time when she traveled to Ireland in 1988 and painted landscapes. The weather was unpredictable and all the factors of the land were constantly changing, forcing her to adjust and re-adjust; she felt like part of it, alive and spontaneous. Li went on to describe an inner emotional connection with her work that allows her to sense the completion of a piece, unsatisfied and fueled to scrape off and repaint until this connection is triggered.
Since her beginnings under the Communist rule, Li has traveled all over the world, painting sights she’s never seen, using an unimaginably unrestrained variation of colors. The List Gallery is currently showcasing works ranging from earlier paintings and drawing from Li’s career in China to her more recent landscape oil painting and charcoal portraits.