Hiu Lai Chong | No Formula

Hiu Lai Chong casts a fresh eye on every subject she paints

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Hiu Lai Chong, After the Day’s Sail, oil, 30 x 40.

Hiu Lai Chong, After the Day’s Sail, oil, 30 x 40.

This story was featured in the August 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  August 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

As Hiu Lai Chong sees it, there’s an interesting connection between painting and pingpong. In each pursuit, there is an artistry to the flex of the wrist and the subtle difference in force that creates a varying amount of bounce, whether the object in question is a pingpong ball or a tightly-stretched canvas bouncing back after it’s pressed by the brush. This very physical, tactile element of painting was a big part of what Chong missed during 10 years of working in computer animation for a video-game company, and it was a major reason that in 2010 she left to paint full time.

With painting, she points out, there is no “undo” button. The same was true when she was practicing calligraphy in her family’s Hong Kong apartment as a teen. Page after page of neat vertical rows of Chinese calligraphic script created with an ink brush on rice paper, elbows never resting on the table, taught her steadiness of hand and connected her with the grace and beauty of an ancient art. Chong’s dedication with the ink brush was an early manifestation of the determination and enthusiasm she puts into everything she does, from learning English to studying a wide range of arts, from working in computer animation to creating fine art. And it has paid off in deep satisfaction and a growing number of collectors and awards: Just two years after leaving her job, she earned the Grand Prize and Artists’ Choice Award at Plein Air Easton in Maryland, and since then she has won other top awards and been exhibited in numerous museum shows around the country.

Even as a child growing up in Hong Kong, Chong was attracted to diverse creative pursuits. She loved music and would spend hours at a piano store, making up songs and playing them. “It was before digital,” the 41-year-old artist says, “and there was no way to have our own piano because if you make any sound, your neighbor will hear.” She also learned violin, and she and her brother took oil-painting classes one summer. Her parents, who owned and ran a small electronics shop, enrolled her in the Jockey Club Ti-I College (Ti-I is Chinese for athletics and art) for high school. There the art instruction was on par with first-year art school, providing foundational training in drawing from life and painting in acrylics, as well as printmaking, sculpture, photography, and installation art.

Chong could have continued at the school for two more years after the basic four-year curriculum. But following the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, many parents began sending their children overseas to continue their education. Chong’s parents found an English language immersion program at Dallas Baptist University, which she attended before transferring to Navarro Community College in Corsicana, TX. There, she was thrilled to return to studying art and discovered excellent instructors and a supportive, highly creative atmosphere. “They made me think outside the box. It’s rare to find that kind of creative education in Hong Kong—there it was more like, copy this, or paint what’s in front of you. But even though it wasn’t as creative, it really helped my drawing skills,” she says.

From Navarro, Chong moved on to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with scholarships from both institutions. Her time there was a frenzy of creative activity, moving constantly between the computer-animation lab and the film-editing room, then from sound editing to painting. “It was tiring but wonderful,” she says.

A nine-month internship in New York City, arranged through the School of the Art Institute, made it even more clear to Chong that she needed to be involved in stimulating creative work. She spent the internship doing web design for a Japanese company located on Wall Street, right across from the stock exchange. “I would see all these people in business suits rushing to the Number 6 train to Manhattan, every day, all walking fast, and the whole scene stuck in my mind,” she remembers. “I told myself, if I’m not enjoying what I’m doing, I’m locking myself down in a grid.” She even made a short film about what she witnessed, called Grid Lock.

After returning to Chicago and completing thesis work for her bachelor’s degree, Chong attended a computer-graphics trade fair in Los Angeles and was hired by a Maryland firm. Over the next 10 years she held a variety of roles in the company, from website design to concept art to video-game art. Her last position was as head artist for a video game’s main character, which she says was “like making up an actor—does he have a beard? How does he talk? What does his mouth look like?” Later she transferred that intense curiosity about people into portraiture. “So now when I look at a person, I see the way they glance, how they talk or gesture, the corner of the mouth, the squint of the eye, and immediately I can connect with them,” she says, reflecting on the scope of human diversity. “We’re all so different but all so similar. It’s very intriguing.”

Although her time with the video-game company was satisfying in many ways, it had its drawbacks. For one thing, Chong wanted something more tangible than a digital file to be the result of all her work. “I wanted something physical that I could touch,” she says, something she could feel, something she could layer. She missed actual brush strokes and canvas. She also terribly missed being outdoors. For a time her office was in the company’s basement, with the lights dimmed so as not to distract from the computer screens. It was not unusual for virtually everyone there to stay until midnight or later, night after night. Even when she left in the evening for art classes, she would return to work for several more hours. So the first time she attended a quick-draw event at Easton Plein Air, she was captivated by the idea of working outdoors. She returned to Easton the next year, and the following year she quit her job.

Since then Chong has participated in plein-air painting events around the country, enormously expanding her experience of this part of the world and its cultures and people, all while having fun, selling paintings, and winning awards. “Every different place, I learn something new,” she says. At the 2015 Maui Plein Air Painting Invitational she painted women in traditional Hawaiian clothing (and earned Best of Show for her depiction of a sugarcane train engine). In Winter Park, FL, a plein-air event coincided with nesting time for egrets, of which she saw thousands. And in Los Gatos, CA, “on every corner I see a Porsche.”

But what draws her back to paint time and again is the water: harbors, marinas, bays. Annapolis is about an hour from her Rockville, MD, home, and she and her husband frequently go there, especially since her husband learned to sail. AFTER THE DAY’S SAIL depicts that moment, both routine and potentially hazardous, of tying up to the dock. “This is a scene I always come back to,” Chong says. “I love that sense of caring. If you’re not careful you could end up in the water, or scratch the boat. The whole process has to be calculated.” Not only is there the precise act of safely docking, she points out, but often a gorgeous Chesapeake Bay sunset in the background as well.

When Chong was painting another water scene entitled PASSING THROUGH THE GATE, the image seemed as though it could be the opening shot of a movie. Chong was walking across the Golden Gate Bridge as a mammoth cargo ship passed underneath, and the stately movement of the ship gliding under the bridge inspired a feeling of expectation and awe. She was mesmerized by its size and steady movement, and also by the curving sweep of the bridge’s shadow falling across it. It reminds her of how ships, over the centuries, have connected the world. This was the moment when a ship had completed its long journey across the Pacific, probably from close to her birthplace, to the country she now calls home.

Just before our conversation, Chong was in her studio, the large converted former dining room in her home, working hard on a piece—scraping off paint, layering, and testing how colors react to each other, which is all part of the ongoing process of continually refining her skills. But it’s more than technique. “To me, painting is not just about getting the light right or the color right, but also the feeling, the idea, the story. And if someone sees it and is touched by it, that’s even better,” she says. “I paint a lot of different subject matter, so there’s no formula. I don’t want to go someplace and say I already know how to paint it. I’ll have an idea, and I see if it will work.”

McBride Gallery, Annapolis, MD; James J. Rieser Fine Art, Carmel, CA; Village Galleries, Lahaina, HI; Studio B Gallery, Easton, MD.

This story was featured in the August 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  August 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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