Thursday, December 4, 2008
Q & A with Artist Z. S. Liang
Your artistic education began at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, and continued at the Massachusetts College of Art and Boston University. How do American and Chinese approaches to fine art education differ?
While I was there, Chinese schools still followed the Soviet method of art education: basic training in drawing, painting, sculpting, all in European, Classical and realist styles. The system was very uniform and every student painted in a similar style and shared the same views on the art of painting.
When I moved to America I pursued contemporary art, which was quite a new experience. Each student and each professor at the Massachusetts College of Art had his own ideas and his own favorite artists. Using each student’s favorite artists, our professors would guide us through the process of learning to paint. This personalized method opened intellectual and artistic doors for me.
Your early work spanned the spectrum of subject matter from still life to figurative to formal portraiture. What motivates you now to paint Native Americans and the American West?
After graduating I returned to my realist roots, painting primarily illustrations, figurative work and formal commissions in order to make a living. The work was not satisfying, and I longed for another direction, something free and brave that would tell a story. It was around this time that I began visiting the outdoor Wampanoag Indian museum at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. The Wampanoag who worked at the museum were obliging and happy to educate me about their present situation, as well as their history and culture. I was fortunate enough to build friendships with several of these workers, and several agreed to model for me. My first model brought with him not only full historical dress, but a bow and arrow, and more stories and information about the Wampanoag than I could have ever hoped for. My sessions painting this man were like lessons for me, lessons in the history of this country and the present difficulties faced by some of its citizens. I became a passionate advocate for the Wampanoag and Eastern Indians in general, and have never looked back.
You spent several years in field research among American Indian tribes from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains. The subject of several of your earlier works was the people of Tibet. Do you see similarities between the two groups?
As a matter of fact, I do. The Tibetan paintings were created after a trip I took several years ago. While I was there, I was astonished to discover the resemblance between certain Tibetan and Native American customs. One tradition practiced by the Tibetans is almost identical to a Navajo traveling ritual. Before the steady push by Europeans and Americans across the West, most of the Native Americans were, like the Tibetans, nomadic. Their religions seem very similar as well: both are earth-based, nurturing and grateful for the bounty of the earth.
Are you inspired by other painters of American Western subjects?
Oh, very much! So much so, in fact, that I will have to list several favorites for each era of Western art. Before the widespread use of the camera, George Catlin and Karl Bodmer lived almost as anthropologists in the field, documenting the lives and culture of the Plains Indians in their drawings and paintings.
Later on, Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington brought Western art to a new artistic level. During the 19th century the life of the average Native American changed drastically, and the works of Remington and Russell make up the majority of historical information we have left about the earlier years. Each man was a skilled historian, and to this day Remington’s work shows how the Native Americans with whom he worked rode and treated their horses.
For contemporary art, it’s got to be Howard Terpning. Howard is so serious about his research, and his passion is so deep that it shows in every aspect of his work. His understanding of the subject gives his paintings a real authenticity and his skill as a painter turns the scenes into fine art. When you look at Howard’s paintings, you see the marriage of passion for Native American culture and a deep knowledge of painting.
Of all your awards and recognitions, which artistic accomplishment has made you proudest?
There are two. In 1998 I won the People’s Choice and Best of Show awards from the American Society of Portrait Artists. The Oil Painters of America also honored me with their Award of Excellence. These two associations are very well-respected and to win recognition from them is a great honor.
Pueblo Street Market, 1920s
We’ve seen two paperback collections of your work by Tianjin People’s Fine Arts Publishing House in China. Do you have any plans to release a more comprehensive collection for your English-speaking audience?
That’s my plan! With luck, in the next two or three years I can put all my recent work together in a book. The Chinese books are much older work with lots of different subjects, but this book would be primarily my American Indian work. As I paint, lately, I think of how what I’m creating will fit in the book: I want to include a variety of scenes, showing all aspects of life from motherhood to hunting.