Artist builds bridge with watercolors
From rural Minnesota come paintings of China’s streets, reports from New York.
John Salminen is a Minnesotan watercolorist whose cityscape paintings — especially those of Chinese cities — have caught the eye of Chinese art enthusiasts. A post entitled “Unbelievable beautiful watercolor painting by John Salminen” has been forwarded several times through Chinese social media platforms, gaining popularity.
“Amazing, his work is just like a sonata of lights and shades. Even the most trivial streetscape looks bright and vivid,” a Chinese netizen wrote on the post, which is typical of most opinions.
What surprises Chinese netizens is that the painter is American born, first set foot in China in 2010 and can paint China’s marketplaces and streetscapes with such precision.
What surprises them even more is that he still lives with his wife in a self-built log cabin surrounded by the pine forests of Duluth, Minnesota.
“I don’t paint nature landscapes, because I’m around that every day, that does not seem unusual to me,” Salminen said, adding that living in a natural environment made him different from “traditional” watercolor painters, who prefer painting nature scenes.
“But when I’m in a city, it’s exciting because it is very different from what I see every day,” Salminen said.
Born in Minnesota in 1945, Salminen has spent most of his life in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Graduating from the University of Minnesota with a master’s in art in 1969, Salminen became a high school art teacher and taught for nearly 34 years.
He started painting watercolors in the 1970s after taking a course with ChineseAmerican painter Cheng- Khee Chee, an associate professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, who has a style influenced by both East and West.
Salminen was inspired by his work. “Just like everyone else in that class, we all wanted to paint just like Chee. So I made a decision at that point that watercolor was something I’d like to pursue,” he said.
“I realized if I was going to be a serious artist, I needed to strike out on my own in terms of subject and style,” Salminen said.
Salminen initially started painting the harbor of Duluth, where there were a lot of ships coming and going.
He started depicting cityscapes after he and his wife visited New York City several years ago.
“I was just overwhelmed with the amount of detail, the amount of visual perfection,” Salminen recalled.
From then on, Salminen followed the road of painting cityscapes, and thanks to his solid skills, soon achieved success.
“The thing about cityscapes is that it is a very open, in-depth subject, because you have a certain amount of nature, the curves with the city, the parks and of course you have people,” he said.
Salminen said he’s done a lot of paintings of New York’s Central Park. “There is really a wide variety of subjects that fall within that category of urban scenes, so there are a lot of choices to paint,” he added.
In 2010, Salminen was invited to Shanghai to receive an award in person at the
Salminen and his wife, who is a photographer, went two weeks before the day of the award presentation and spent a lot of time on their own walking all over Shanghai recording life and activities on the streets with their cameras.
“We really enjoyed wandering in the alleys, seeing life going on probably the same way it’s been going on for generations,” he said.
Since then Salminen has been invited to many international exhibitions in Hangzhou, Beijing, Nanjing, Lushan, Lijiang and Shanghai.
In Beijing, he stayed at Hutong hotel, riding bicycles and just hanging out; he climbed Lushan Mountain and visited small villages in the area; in Lijiang, he enjoyed the beauty of the Li River and the vitality of the ancient city.
“China is such a beautiful country, I would hate to pick a favorite because we have so many favorites,” said Salminen. “Shanghai was my initial introduction to Chinese subject matters; we have been back six times, and I continued to find it very interesting (with) fascinating subjects.”
Salminen said the challenging part of his creative process is to turn a photograph into a painting, because the two media are two totally different aesthetics.
“My job as a painter is to reintroduce painting elements into the process rather than just simply reproducing larger versions of the photographs,” he said.
“The photographs are disappointing. They don’t appear as I saw the scene when I was there, because when you were there, your emotions made the color you see in your memory unseen in the photograph,” Salminen said. “So the photograph is just a starting point, but with far from enough information to create a painting. I need to reintroduce the atmosphere, the drama, the life quality into the painting. “
Salminen said the audiences for watercolor painting in China are growing and very strong, compared with the US.
“I really wanted watercolor artists in the US to realized how wonderful so many of the Chinese painters were and the high quality of the work they were doing because we don’t see very many examples of the work of contemporary Chinese painters here,” said Salminen, who wrote a sixteen-page article about the Shanghai Biennial for a watercolor artists magazine.
“There are so many contemporary artists whose work I saw that were very impressive,” Salminen said, naming as an example Liu Ye, one of the most influential Chinese watercolorists at work today.
“Shanghai claims to be the birthplace of Western-style watercolor painting in China,” he said.
“But now we are being influenced by the Chinese, the Chinese artists have started entering work into competitive exhibitions here in the US recently and have been doing very well, gaining recognition,” Salminen said
“I think as a result, we are now looking to China for influence much in the way that China is looking to the US as they developed their style of painting. So there is a lot of sharing now going on between China and the US, which I think is wonderful,” Salminen added.
Contact the writer at xiaohong@ chinadailyusa.com
John Salminen painting in a village near the Lijiang River in Yunnan province, Southwest China.