Opening her eyes

Artists: Opening her eyes

Opening her eyes

Hua Nian persevered in her love of art, from her childhood in China to making and teaching art today.

Story: Amy Hassinger

Photos: Robert K. O'Daniell

When you step into Hua Nian’s home studio in Urbana, your eye travels along a wall of colorful abstract paintings, alights on a jungle of luscious green plants, then takes in the cathedral ceiling and Shakespearean-style balcony overlooking the light-filled room. Two long, plastic-sheathed tables provide drawing space for Hua’s 80-plus students who study with her every afternoon, and a hip-height shelf full of supplies, small sculptures and more plants spans the walls. The room seems to speak of both order and the possibility for fruitful chaos; it feels like a room lived in by an established, experienced artist.

Hua Nian is both established and experienced, as an artist and an art teacher, and yet she speaks with an almost breathtaking modesty. Though she has made art all her life, and has worked as a serious artist for at least 20 years, she remains humbled by the creative process.

Part of the reason for this humility stems from her background. Hua grew up in Lechang, a town in the Guangdong province of China. Her parents, who were educated professionals, had been forced to move there during the Cultural Revolution to be “re-educated” by peasants. Lechang sat at the foothills of the NanLing mountain range, and every year when it rained, the Wu River that flowed down from the mountains would flood, carrying debris from upriver – furniture, garbage, even corpses.

“Dead bodies lying in the river for three days,” Hua remembered, “until the police came the take them away. I thought that was normal!”

Hua learned her love of art from her mother, who used to draw portraits in her spare time. As a child, Hua studied art at the Children’s Palace, an hour’s walk from her house. She also used to sneak into meetings of an artists’ club at the local factory where her mother worked. She tried to glean what information she could in these meetings, but was frustrated by the adult-oriented instruction. Still, she kept drawing. At 13, she took the national exam that would allow her to attend art school and start her on the path to becoming a nationally sanctioned artist.
She didn’t get in.

The rejection broke her heart. The decision, carrying an official weight, felt like the final word. She would not be an artist – the system had decreed it. Still, despite this discouragement, she continued to make art. One day, she discovered a box of dusty, dried-up watercolors beneath her grandmother’s bed.

“That was my gold, to find paint! My parents didn’t buy any supplies for me, and I didn’t know there was watercolor until I found that box,” she said. “I kept it until I came to America.”
She used those watercolors to paint figures of Chinese deities on blown eggs, work she gave as presents to family and friends. She also created scenes from torn and folded candy wrappers – figures of flamenco dancers, swans, little girls bending sadly over their work.

Eventually, she went to college to study journalism – a choice she made mainly because the school offered courses in photography. There she met Qin Yi-han, an art editor at the newspaper Guangzhou Youth, where Hua was an intern. One day, Qin caught her drawing – a loose-lined figure with a swirling skirt – and asked if she had any other work. Hua showed him some of her candy-wrapper tearings, and he was impressed with how precisely proportioned and graceful they were. He published some of her artwork in the newspaper and invited her to study art with him. Every Saturday, Qin would gather outside with a group of artists to paint. Hua watched, but never joined in.

“I was shy,” she explained. “Those people in art schools were like gods to me. I felt very inferior.”

Instead, she observed and learned from a distance.

After graduating college, she taught photojournalism at the university for six years. When the time came for her to take another exam, this one to admit her to graduate school in journalism, she balked. Studying history and politics bored her. She thought she’d rather be a fashion designer.

“In China,” Hua explained, “changing paths is disgraceful. My mother was furious. She yelled at me: ‘You change your mind all the time!’”

Chagrined, Hua returned to Qin, who gave her another perspective. He told her she hadn’t changed her mind that much, that her ambitions were always contained within the world of art. Inspired by his encouragement, and by her mother’s desire that she see the world, Hua put all her energy into learning English and applying to art schools in the U.S. She was accepted at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, where she went to study art education. And it was there that she came to an important realization.

“Art is not just making beauties and techniques,” she said. “No matter how ugly it is, if it is related to your life and speaks to you, that is art.”

She came by this insight through hard work. After studying African masks in an art history class, she painted a series of four abstract paintings that she titled “Masks.” Required to write an artist’s statement explaining her vision, she studied the paintings and realized that all the eyes in her masks were closed.

“I tried to open the eyes, but it frightened me,” Hua said. “I was so frightened in America, so sad. Life is so good here, so advanced, but the more advanced, the more rich it is, the more sad I was, because I thought about the very harsh life we had before.”

The closed eyes in her paintings made her see how she didn’t want to open her own eyes.

“But it was too late,” she added. “My eyes were already opened.”

This was difficult, this realization; the memory of it can still move her to tears. But what saved her was the artwork: She saw that making art that came deeply out of her own center could move her.
“It opened my door,” she said, “and I realized my background is an endless source.”

She still draws on that wisdom, that art should come directly out of life. Since that first series of paintings, she has found material not only in her childhood, but in her experience as a mother, her fascination with archaeology and ancient structures, her observations of the natural world. She uses her experience of alienation in those factory art club meetings as a lesson in what not to do as a teacher now: She tries to meet the children she teaches where they are.

“Making mistakes is a big theme in my class,” she said. “I try to get them in a mood, and then feed them stuff to work with. As well as teach them good habits – how to hold a pencil, how to move freely when drawing a line.”

Hua describes her own work as “spontaneous” and identifies her greatest influences as being not only master artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, but more “primitive,” archetypal work as well – Stonehenge, cave art – work that represents the deep core of human experience. It’s clear, when you stand in front of her paintings, that she taps into this deep core when she is applying her paint.

Currently, Hua is honing her watercolor technique, imitating the work of contemporary artists Charles Reid and Edgar Whitney, preparing herself to open her eyes wider still to the ever-changing vista of her own life.