Where did you learn your craft?
When I was a child, my father taught traditional Chinese painting at the prestigious Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art. Constant exposure to his skill and ability had a strong influence on me. When I turned 16 I enrolled at this Academy, where I spent the next 11 years studying oil painting. After graduation, like my father I also became a teacher at this school. Then in 2013 I left China to come to America, and obtained a second masters degree from the New York Academy of Art.
You've mentioned in your work you pursue the essence of both the Western and Oriental artistic paths. Can you say more about this?
Traditionally Western art depicts form, and Oriental art places emphasis on spirit. Western artists manipulate their material to communicate something to their audience; they use the techniques of balance, perspective, and color to express a personal reaction to art. Oriental art tries to suggest by the simplest possible means the inherent nature of aesthetic objects. It seeks to express the purity and simplicity of nature, not just the illusion of reality.
I hope my paintings do more than simply show a visual of a person or a landscape, but reveal them to you as seen through my eyes; sharing how the individual embodies and represents the culture and natural beauty of their surroundings. I approach each painting not merely as an interpretation of a scene or an image, but as the telling of a story... a tale of people attending to their daily lives, rendered with meticulous detail, and told with sensitivity and compassion. My goal is to create a visual narrative so vivid that viewers understand and relate to it, even though the experience isn’t their own.
Can you say a little about how you became connected to the people, land, and culture of Tibet?
In 1988 I traveled to Tibet for the first time. Even though I'd heard almost too many stories about it growing up, I was still attracted by its natural beauty, and fell in love with it at once.
I remember reading of the mythical Shangri-la, the fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. He depicted Shangri-la as a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided by a lamasery. This myth has become synonymous with an earthly paradise, and particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia – a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world.
For me, Tibet really is this utopia; a non-fictional Shangri-la for artists. Songs, temples, chants, smiling, horse herds, snow mountains... I was surrounded by these everyday in Tibet; beauty is everywhere. I particularly love the light of the Tibetan plateau, and the skin tone of Tibetan people is very suitable for painting. So Tibet is my Shangri-la, a constant source of inspiration for me.
While visiting Tibet you met a young girl in a temple, who you were inspired to paint for the next ten years. Can you say a little about your experience meeting this girl?
Being a figurative painter, I spend a lot of time looking for models for my work. Even though I've traveled to Tibet many times, and met many different kinds of local people, I've hardly found a more suitable model than this Tibetan girl.
When I met her I remember I was in a small temple, and ran into a little girl. Her unique beauty caught my eyes at once—she was with her grandma, and since I could not communicate with them (because I didn't speak their local language) the only choice I had was to follow them, until I got their address from a warm-hearted person. The second year, I visited her family and stayed with them for a month. Since then I've visited at least 10 times, and have become a friend of this family. It's been a really amazing experience!
There's a quality of humanness and emotion in your work that many artists often find difficult to capture... is this something you intentionally try to bring out in your art, or is it simply a natural process for you?
Many painters just paint from photos, because it's convenient and can save you a lot of time. For me, I ‘d rather take time to communicate with my models, and not simply be a stranger to them. I can’t remember how many times I visited that Tibetan girl’s family... as our relationship became closer, I was deeply impressed by their hospitality and integrity, and was so grateful that they treated me like a friend!
Every one of my paintings has a story behind it, that is my experience. It has a deeper meaning, and also contains a memory... I just want to paint what touches me.
Do you feel audiences are able to connect with these stories and memories you share through your work?
It is amazing that I've had the chance to meet and paint the Tibetan people. Being an artist, I aspire to combine my philosophy, my unique experiences, and my painting technique to communicate with viewers. My collectors Dough and Patty Jaffers have said it this way: ‘we enjoy the depth in his work—he presents the beauty, dignity, and strength of a culture suspended in time, and unchanged by the outside world. Through his work, we are able to look beyond ourselves, and relate with the universal human experience, which transcends ethnic and geographic boundaries.'
Are there other artists that have informed and inspired your craft?
Rembrandt and Caravaggio are my favorite painters. Both of them are masters of light. In my mind, my paintings will fail if people are not able to feel light in them. From these two masters, I learned how to paint light in Tibet.
You've moved from China to Canada, and now to New York. How do you find the experience of being a painter in the US, versus in China?
Very different! In China I felt like I was a tiger in a zoo—I didn’t need to worry about how to survive. In North America, I'm a tiger in the wilderness—a lot of challenges, but they can make me strong!
This Tibetan proverb was included in one of your latest exhibitions; how does it relate to your art?
I was surprised when I first saw coal mines being dug in Tibet 6 years ago. Since then, hotels and gold diggers have appeared almost everywhere in Tibet... more and more Tibetan towns have become places I no longer recognize. Something important and beautiful is disappearing, and I miss the Tibet I first discovered when I visited 10 years ago. But it cannot come back again, and I know that all I can do now is be a witness, a memory keeper, and use my art to express the memory of that Tibet.