A brush with fate that lasted seven years
Traditional ink painting and a different approach to her work have helped US artist tap a new vein of inspiration, Li Jing reports.
For artist Patty Hudak, soaking up Beijing culture for seven years has led to a shift in not only her art, but also in how she channels it.
“I’m not painting from the head any more but from the mind,” said the American, who has been immersed in the capital’s art scene — exhibiting, curating and lecturing — since she arrived with her family in 2008.
Before coming to Beijing she had focused on pencil drawings without color and describes the style as geometric, carefully measured and balanced, “a very concrete mathematical, theoretical way of producing art”.
Yet that began to change as she became familiar with Chinese ink painting, which she began to incorporate into her work.
“Chinese brushes … are long with a very fine point, and they are very sensitive to feelings,” Hudak said at her studio in Huantie art zone in Chaoyang district.
“Anything I am feeling recorded in the brush.
“If you are mad, it comes out. You have to breathe, because it is showing who you truly are, not just what your ideas are.”
The 53-year-old said it takes strength to be able to paint this way, and that it has been a struggle to let go of the idea of strong composition and simply release her emotions onto the canvas.
“It is the difference between painting from the head and from the heart,” she said. “I’m still battling with the two sides. But it might be a positive feeling that bringing the East I understand together with the West.”
A retrospective of her work produced in the past seven years is now on exhibition at Being 3 Gallery, in Beijing, from her early graphite drawings to the most recent oil paintings themed on the Chinese five elements — metal, wood, water, fire and earth.
As an outsider in China, she said she has observed many layers of culture.
“I’m trying to get through one layer at a time with my own understanding.”
Cheng Guoqin, the exhibition curator, said Hudak’s journey has had a remarkable effect on the painter’s life and art.
“Her work has extended from black and white to color, from paper and film to canvas,” she said. “These works combine her memory and emotions, while absorbing the oriental ink spirit and different styles of Western abstraction.”
At 15, Hudak studied at the Creative Arts Workshop in Connecticut. She later combined her interests in biology and art by studying biological illustration at the University of New Haven, and gained an art degree from Wellesley College.
In the 1980s and 1990s she had a studio in Brooklyn, New York, where she was obsessed by a world made of dark lines against a white page, creating vaguely biological images based on simplicity and elegance.
Coming to China was a childhood dream, she said, explaining that when she was young she enjoyed Chinese food and using chopsticks.
“She has found an internal peace from Asian philosophy,” said Dana Walrath, an American writer and one of Hudak’s close friends. “It might be because that in the cities of the US we just have the city, we don’t have the philosophical groundings.”
Wang Yongmin, Hudak’s neighbor in the Huantie art community, said the soft colors, dripping paint and brush strokes in the American’s recent works are distinctly Chinese, but he added there are also Western elements in the structure, such as diagonal lines and curves.
“The lines she used in her work reflect the technique in Chinese ink painting,” he said. “In the West, paint, brushes are rough and flat, while Chinese brushes are soft and round. When applied to the canvas, the results are different.”
Wang is a Chinese traditional ink painter, and the artists have often practiced together. “It’s also very new for me to see her contemporary works, a style I had read about only in books,” he added.
A 25-meter-long painted installation, Sailing to Byzantium, embodies Hudak’s combination work, as she adopted calligraphic brushstrokes on silk fabric to present an eternal aesthetic inspired by Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
Although not her intention, the large piece has a lot to do with bike riding, an inseparable part of her Beijing life.
“The installation has the same width as a bike lane,” she said. “I got a lot of my ideas from just riding a bike. When I’m on my bike, I feel I can really see and experience Beijing — beautiful sunlight when it’s clear, people and their faces passing me, children going to school together, and workers exercising in front of their work building.”
She said the most important thing for an artist is something people may ordinarily think would kill creativity — routine.
Hudak leads a simple life: She gets up early, sends her two children to school, exercises in Chaoyang Park and then rides a bicycle to her studio, where she works for about five hours before returning home to cook dinner for her family.
“I learned here not to rush around, just to stay and let images and emotions come. We have a lot of material hidden in our heart, more than we realize, and you need to give yourself a way to process it.” Contact the writer at lijing2009@ chinadaily.com.cn
The seven years spent in Beijing by American artist Patty Hudak, here with her painted installation SailingtoByzantium, are reflected in her current exhibition in the capital.