Artist Nan Liu’s portraits, landscapes, and ink paintings cross culture and mediums to bring the beauty beholden by the eye to life. Liu’s plein air painting are on display through Aug. 15 at the Artport Gallery.
Inspiration strikes young
For centuries, calligraphy has reigned as a supreme visual art form in China and worldwide. The earliest forms date back to the Shang dynasty (ca.1600-ca.1100 B.C.E.), where calligraphy was found on animal bones, shells, and bronze vessels. Meaning “beautiful writing,” the calligrapher shapes every stroke, dot, line, or angle as a means of cultural self-expression akin to poetry that reflects the energy of life.
Modern calligraphy reverberates such energy at the hands of skilled, trained artists who value tradition. Professor and painter Nan Liu stands on the shoulders of such tradition and creates contemporary art that breathes his experiences to life on a canvas.
When inspiration struck in his grandmother’s house in China, Liu recalls, “At 9 years old, I picked up an ink brush. I saw on my grandmother’s wall a painting by Qi Baishi [a famous Chinese painter]. He was a neighbor of my great-grandfather. He sent an ink painting. When I was young, I imitated the painting on the wall.”
Luckily for Liu, the benefit of arts in early education is not lost on Chinese culture. By 3rd grade, he was learning not only about traditional Chinese ink paintings but was exposed to formal Western-style paintings, eventually shaping his professional artistry and adoration for drawing and painting. He credits his primary school teacher for encouraging him to be an artist.
“[We would do] Western style of painting. [We studied] Roman, Greek, [and looked at plaster sculptures] to start drawing,” reflects Liu. “After school, we went to the professor’s art office at 3 p.m. [to draw] a still life. He would leave, and 2 hours later, he’d come back to check who was the best. Not to grade. But after school, just to learn. It was a golden, pure time.”
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From student to teacher
Discipline and education have propelled Liu in his search to create art that reflects the life he sees. Artists like Fan Zeng, who used his success as an artist in the 1980s to create a personal museum to support arts education, mentored Liu. It was there that Liu was taught to trust his instincts and make choices on a canvas swiftly and thoughtfully.
Liu was inspired to continue his education in fine arts at China’s top universities. Eventually, his educational journey led him to the United States. Here he made the evolution from student to teacher when he began to explore the practice of Discipline-Based Art education at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock.
“I went to continue [my studies in] art education, to learn how to teach art students to cultivate themselves to be better artists,” says Liu. He joined the Tallahassee community at Florida State University, where he simultaneously obtained a Masters of Fine Arts in Painting and a Doctorate in Art Education.
Today, he continues the legacies of his mentors as he uses his years of training and cross-cultural experiences to teach drawing and painting at Florida A&M University. “Global culture has no boundaries,” says Liu. “I appreciate tradition, and then as a contemporary artist, I want to breathe life [into my art], based on my own experience, to share with our audiences today.”
Mediums are no matter
If a writer is to write what they know, then a painter must paint what they see. For Liu, what he saw was the beauty of Florida’s natural landscape.
Liu is well known for his portrait work which begins with the eyes and eventually scales through the body. Yet, a chance encounter in Washington, D.C., with the works of Childe Hassam, a late 19th and early 20th-century American impressionist’s large plein air landscapes that stand large on 40-inch canvases altered his work forever.
“I was shocked that he painted [in such a] big size. He’s one of my heroes,” Liu said. Influenced by Hassam and the impressionist play of light to capture an object’s essence, Liu began to explore the works of other Impressionists like Monet and Pissarro. “They try to catch the instant light. Plein air is a challenge,” Liu said, “It forces you to make decisions so fast. Light will move. It’s all painted on site under the sunlight.”
And what better place to capture the sultry movement of sunlight than off the treetops of Tallahassee. “Florida is so diverse: beach, garden, woods, and swamps,” says Liu. “The natural environment is so intact and unpolluted. The color is so lush. That’s what catches my eye.”
For Liu, the medium is just a tool to create and create he has. Over the past few decades, Liu worked on three different series. Liu spent over a decade creating 16 still-life oil paintings of his students at FAMU on large canvases that he stretched and gessoed himself. The size and scope of the series shines light on the life that exudes from youth.
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His second series explores the landscapes of Tallahassee he has fallen in love with. He rejoined COCA for a solo exhibition of his plein-air Florida landscape at Tallahassee International Airport Art Gallery to show his love of the luscious land surrounding the Capital City, his third since 2012’s Awakening of Nature and 2016’s Still Life.
Currently, Liu is working on his third series, which returns to his ink roots. It focuses on the people in Liu’s life, his wife, students, fellow professors, and old friends. With the weekly support of a community of artists called the Swamp Buddhists, which meet every Saturday at 621 Gallery, Liu has produced 80 pieces of water-based ink on Chinese rice paper.
Liu’s artistry combines practice, knowledge, and patience, and his work and artistry simply being, “I’m an artist. I want to share with the local community.”
If you go
What: Nan Liu: Plein Air Florida Landscapes
When: June 30-Aug. 15
Where: TLH Airport Art Gallery | Online at tallahasseearts.org
Cost: Free; the first 30 minutes of parking at the Tallahassee International Airport is free
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | 850-224-2500 x6
Dr. Christy Rodriguez de Conte is the feature writer for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the capital area’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (tallahasseearts.org).