May 26, 2013

My Love&Hate Relationship With Art - A Memoir of A "Professional" Artist

Recently I spent some serious money to frame several paintings I did long time ago (some of them over 20 years ago). As a person who claimed "disliking 'art' intensely" , I found myself enjoying seeing those paintings with frames - they seemed more complete, and even more "expensive". While I looked at them with appreciation, I could not help pondering my life as an "artist" - my "love and hate" relationship with "art".

Two of my old paintings in frames
(painted over 10 years ago).
For years, I had been feeling uncomfortable to be called as an "artist", especially when it meant "professional artist". The reasons were complicated and manifold, yet tangled with deep emotional traumas. But to simply put, I would say first of all, as a person who has extremely wide range of interests, doing art full time means nothing else but "torture"; secondly, art as career was not my own choice, but my parents; finally, probably most importantly, I do not believe art as a creativity should be a profession.

When I was a child, I liked to draw just like any other kids did. My parents both were teachers (or "professors", as we call it in this country) in a well known art college in China. I started to draw quite "formally" when I was in about 6 or 7 grade, but still mostly just for fun. Then suddenly, at age of 12, my parents made a big decision to me, that instead of going to normal high school, I should go to art high school (the one that was attached to the art college they worked). I obeyed them without any thinking, just like I had been hitherto doing due to their absolute authority. In school I was a bright kid and excelled in almost every course, if I could've waited later, until I graduated from normal high school, I could have much more choices, but at the age of 12, I had no ideas about the seriousness of career choice. It was until years later that I realized that was such a fatal mistake of my life path, and if I could have a chance to go back to redo it myself, I would be willing to sacrifice anything just for that chance. I still remember one of teachers in middle school said to me during class, personally, with a low but clear voice: "we all think it's a mistake that if you go to art high school." (How I wished he was my father!) Nonetheless, after finishing middle school, I passed exams and enrolled in that special art high school. Thus my art career began.

Two oil paintings I made over 20 years
Later, I found that in this special high school, not only 60% of time I had to draw or paint all those boring things like a robot, but also I lost opportunity to study many other subjects that I once enjoyed in middle school. Since I was a naturally curious person, I found studying in this school was a completely waste of time. So 4 years later, after graduating from this high school, I fought against my parents, trying not to continue my art education. But my parents "violently" suppressed my "revolt", and consequently, I involuntarily went to art college. Upon this time, I still yet to know how difficult my life would be in future due to this choice of "art".

In art college. I was the only girl in the 
photo. (Of ocourse, if you can figure
out which one is a girl. :-))
It would be a lie if I said that I did not have fun in art college. On the first day of my college "education", I decided that I should enjoy it. And I did, though not necessarily in classes. My parents worked at the same school, but I was not majored in their fields, and I lived in dormitory, so they did not have much control over me. I enjoyed lots of free time due to the super easy school curriculum. The college that I considered as "trashy" did not give me knowledge my curiosity craved, but nurtured my free spirit to its full scale - reading books by my own choices, making friends, falling in love, drinking, smoking (yes, I was definitely one of - possibly the first - pioneer girls who smoke cigaretts "openly" in "modern" China!) and wandering, even worse - escaping dozens dozens of classes, I was a true "hippie" at the time.

I did not "hate" art back then. As matter of fact, I had my fun time with art. Also because I was young, I was totally confident about my future, believed that I was fully capable of correcting the mistake my parents made to me. It was not until 20 years later that I realized I totally overestimated my ability to fight against fate.

Career change is not a super difficult thing to do, but it could be somehow different if you were majored in special field such as art at an early age. And if later your life had to start from scratch as a immigrant without any supports, things can be a little "tough". Even though I made my primary goal to change my career when I came to USA, after fighting battles after battles, years later, I found I still had to make living by doing art professionally, either computer artist, or portrait artist. And another giant obstacle which I never foresaw was, after I entered middle age, at the time I finally settled in new country, ready to prepare for some "real" changes, my health slid straight down to a never-ending chronic condition, which made a simple daily routine tasks like a mammoth achievement. Little by little, I found my "dream" vanished away beyond my reach, I fell into despair and tasted a complete failure of life.

It was during this period of time, both my "hatred" toward art and my resentment to my parents were intensified. Though I probably smile to show gratitude, but inside my heart, I almost took every compliment given to me for my art as a justification of my parents' "wrong doing", and a denial of my other talents, intelligence, or the "true" value of my life.

However, as many people usually did at the "dead end", the turning point also came to me during my most desperate moment. One day in the mall, standing in front of my portrait business location, after receiving one of endless compliments to my works, I suddenly realized, that the compliments meant to give to me, not my parents. I realized, the reason I did so well in art had almost nothing to do with my parents' choice, but everything to do with my own talent. Since then, I learned to give credit to myself, and by doing so, I felt easier to face the reality. Even though later I still had lots of homework to do, but it was specifically since that moment, I made peace with art.

Dear Frida, oil on canvas, 22x28
painted over 10 years ago.
Still, making peace with art only mean I did not resent it anymore, but it didn't mean I would feel good to live with it everyday. 2 years later, I finally found my "refugee" in art teaching, a job that I don't have to actually do or sell any art works, but only interacting with my students. This is by far the easiest job I ever had, and the large amount of free time makes me felt that I finally found what I really fought for: freedom.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that art should not be a profession. So fundamentally, no matter my parents did or not, I would never choose to be a professional artist. I think that from the first day when art was born in human history, it did not meat to be a "profession". For me, art is nothing more than a natural expression of personal feeling. It is inspirational, refreshing and unrepeatable. Unfortunately in human society, "professional art" became something else, something technically reproducible, something can be valued by money, something in demand in market business. Art market has been commercialized beyond reasonable (especially in current China). It is a place not only dealing with art and money, but hypocrisy, vanity and greed. It is a place where.passion can be, or has to be pretentious and priced. Art, the most intimate and friendly activity of life, was alienated, "sanctified" as something far above life. Certainly, from the beginning of my "art career", I found I was a total stranger to this "professional art" world.

Looking back, I am proud that I had fought so hard to free myself from the "manacle" of "art profession". I have no slight regret of what I did. Also by choosing art education (I had not other choices anyway), I learned to accept fate, my fate, so I no longer feel miserable for "what I could do if..". But I would still say this, if I had freedom to choose my own path, if my profession was not "art", my life would be 10 times, or 100 times easier. It is true that I learned a lot through the difficulty journey of my life, but this doesn't mean that I could not learn the same thing in a different path. As I don't believe misery is necessary for compassion, I also don't believe adversity is necessary for wisdom. And this difficulty, this ordeal I went through was unnecessarily "man-made", due to my parents' sheer ignorance to human nature.

Early Fall, acrylic, 12x16. Newly painted
At the end of my lifelong "battle", I made peace not only with art, but with my parents, and my fate. Now, looking at all those paintings framed, hanging on my wall, I feel an intimacy between them and myself, as if they were my tangible children. Yes, the "art" I "hated" was not this kind. I am glad and proud that I have my fare share of art, the art by my own definition. Maybe after all, my life path was not that bad. I don't even feel resented to be called as an "artist" now. However, deep inside I know I am not qualified to be any type of "professionists", because I am simply a person who enjoys things randomly, and never really know what I would be passionate or not passionate about when I wake up tomorrow morning.


  1. yunyi, sounds like it's been a long hard road of self-discovery for you, and that you've finally found peace, freedom and reconciliation not only in the present but with your past as well.

  2. It is so ironic that self-determination and expression come so late in life! I am glad that you have made peace with some of the difficult things in your past - and I love to see how your true nature is now able to express itself in your art.

  3. @np, you summed up just right!

    @melody, as a victim of child abuse, making peace with parents, doesn't mean I justified what they did, you know that. Those paintings I did when I was young, were all dull and colorless, not like the ones I did lately. Thanks for stopping by and your understanding!

  4. Yun Yi, I can relate to your feelings about art as a profession. I think that's why I flunked out of art school...I hated having my stuff graded and criticized and having deadlines for turning in work seemed so odd to me. I'm so glad you've made peace with yourself, your parents, and with art itself. It's such a delightful means of self-expression. Framing a painting is an art in itself. Isn't it amazing how a simple frame can have such an impact?

  5. Kris, I am so glad you "flunked out of" art school! I should have done the same thing. Agree, that framing is part of art. I enjoyed it so much!

  6. I was voted "Most Individualistic" (and Best Dressed) as a senior in high school. Emerson and Thoreau were my gerus. Certainly, the best beloved is Justice. "By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor." (from "Hidden Words" by Baha'u'llah, Prophet Founder Baha'i Faith. Heather

  7. Heather, I am so glad you figured out a way to comment. Thanks! Knowing you in person, I can tell that you are one of the "most individualistic" individualists. Nice quote of Baha'u'llah.