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Slideshow: Chinese Artist Wang Gongyi

Artist Wang Gongyi

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The serenity of the watercolor-like washes and fluid gestures of Wang Gongyi‘s prints give no indication of her turbulent past. Born in Tianjin, China in 1946, Wang was on a collision course with China’s Communist revolution. As a teen, she nearly starved to death during Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, then later was “sent down” to the countryside for “re-education” through raising pigs during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. While these epic forces might have crushed her, instead they forged her into the sparkling, light-hearted artist who today describes making art as “play.”

“Painting is like playing. Don’t take it so seriously!” she says. “Making art is sensory; when you’re creating, you really have to let go and feel the thing. It’s not something that can be found in your mind. It’s not logical.”

In 1986, Wang was among the first four artists chosen to leave China and study in France. Seeing the West and her own country from the outside had a huge impact on her life and conception of art.

“My mentality went through fast changes. My idea of what art could be and my choice of theme and subject also changed,” she remembers.

Since then, the artist has become comfortable with figurative and abstract as well as Western and Eastern approaches to making art. And though she is world-renowned, she is little known in her own community.

Wang has made Oregon her home for more than a decade. She first came to Portland at the invitation of Portland Art Museum curator Gordon Gilkey as an artist-in-residence at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. She’s had shows at the Laura Russo Gallery, Augen Gallery and several of her prints are in the collection of the Portland Art Museum. Her work has also travelled extensively throughout her home country and she has another big show scheduled there in 2013.

Currently, Wang lives in Northeast Portland where she teaches and continues to make art. One thing she values about living in Oregon is the state’s natural beauty.

“Nature is more important than culture,” she says. “Living in Portland has allowed me to immerse myself in nature and that has rejuvenated me, mentally and physically.”

Though Wang now lives far from home, she has not left China behind completely. Like traditional Chinese artists, Wang goes out into nature and absorbs the deeper sense of a place. Then she does something that might surprise Western artists: Rather than taking out her paints and brushes and capturing the scene plein air, she goes home. Paintings begin to emerge from the experience days and sometimes months later.

“When I work, images of nature come out of nowhere. It’s not planned. I don’t pursue it. I really have no idea what something’s about and then — there it is!”

In case you missed last night’s broadcast of Oregon Art Beat, the program will repeat Sunday night at 6 pm on OPB TV.