Artist builds bridge with wa­ter­col­ors

From ru­ral Min­nesota come paint­ings of China’s streets, re­ports from New York.

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS CANADA -

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@ chi­nadai­

John Salmi­nen paint­ing in a vil­lage near the Li­jiang River in Yun­nan prov­ince, South­west China.

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