Chinese-born painter Z.S. Liang creates historical scenes of American Indian life
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the November 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art November 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art November 2012 digital download here. Or simply subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
It’s 1835, and two cultures meet uneasily in Montana, as a party of Blackfeet Indians visits the American Fur Company’s trading post at Fort McKenzie. The Blackfeet women admire blankets, ribbons, and beads they’ve been offered, while the white men attempt to strike a lucrative deal with the Indians’ leader, showing off a sample of inexpensive factory-made metal shields they hope to exchange for valuable buffalo hides. An American flag rises in sad symbolism over the scene.
But the skeptical Blackfeet are not buying the deal, a truth captivatingly dramatized by the large oil REJECTING THE METAL SHIELD. As artist Z.S. Liang explains, Indian shields were traditionally made from buffalo hide. In the natives’ philosophy, “the animal’s spirit transferred to the shield, enhancing its protective powers. This metal thing has no spirit, so it can’t protect you. It has no value.”
The painting offers a perfect example of Liang’s talent for depicting historic American Indian life. Beyond mere illustration, his scenes present complex narratives in which the characters are thoroughly individualized, their relationships dramatized in striking psychological detail. “Obviously, my paintings are representational,” he says. “But they’re deeper than just stories. It’s like visual literature.”
Over the past decade, the visual literary experiences Liang offers have found a growing and discerning audience. REJECTING THE METAL SHIELD, completed two years ago, was purchased for its permanent collection by the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s most esteemed museums of the American West. Another work, PAINTED ROBE FOR POWDER AND BALL, fetched an impressive $345,000 at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in 2009.
Those kinds of achievements would be career milestones for any artist. But they are even more significant considering that this painter began life in a humble home in Guangzhou, China, 75 miles northwest of Hong Kong.
Zhuo Shu Liang was born in 1953, the fourth of five children. His father, who died when Z.S. was little, was a woodblock-print artist and illustrator. His mother was an ethnomusicologist, traveling the countryside collecting and preserving folk songs.
Liang inherited his father’s artistic talent, drawing in pencil on his bedroom walls from an early age. His first major recognition came when he was 6, after he witnessed a traditional parade. Back home, he drew the scene from memory, “with people and gongs and drums and fireworks and dancers, lots of detail.” His mother submitted the piece to the Guangdong Province children’s magazine. “That was my first work published. It was very exciting for a 6-year-old.”
But young Liang dreamed of a career in engineering, loving illustrations of “ships and airplanes, submarines and weapons.” In 1966, his goal of studying at the elite Wuhan Transportation University was derailed by the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao’s sweeping, brutal campaign to purge all vestiges of feudalism and capitalism. For a couple of years he spent his time “having fun, playing, and doing artwork,” which largely consisted of portraits of Mao along with “brave, determined workers.”
As things settled down, Liang returned to his studies. Selected to be a high school art teacher, he spent a year in teacher-training college, only to decide he wanted to be a professional artist instead. That led him to a job as a scenic painter and then as a set designer for Guangzhou’s traditional dance company; he also built a successful freelance practice as a magazine and book illustrator. In 1979, he won admission to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and then, a year later, to the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art.
Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, and the diplomatic relations that followed, brought a new openness. “America became our friend,” says Liang, instead of the enemy. “Suddenly we were seeing American books, and movies, and modern art.”
For the first time, Liang encountered works by painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell. “It was so fascinating, so exciting, so different from the representational painting we’d all been doing,” he says. “And that was the main reason I came to America.” Liang applied to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, and he entered its Fine Arts program in 1983. His grounding in traditional realism opened eyes at the school. “My teachers told me, ‘You should be teaching here,’” he remembers. “But I kept telling them, ‘This is old-style stuff.’ I wanted to study abstract expressionism.”
He immersed himself in modern theory but realized that it wasn’t likely to pay the bills. He switched to a double major in fine art and illustration and was soon getting commissions for portraits. He continued such work while earning an MFA at Boston University in 1989.
Meanwhile, Liang found a satisfying way to incorporate modern art principles into his representational work. He developed a process of planning realist paintings as if they were made up of abstract forms. “I play with blocks and masses, horizontal and vertical and diagonal movements that connect at some point. These are hidden in my realist paintings, but they add energy and make the organization and the visual impact of a painting much stronger.”
His compositional and representational skills began reaping benefits. After graduation, he was hired by a hotel interior-
design firm to create architectural renderings and murals for upscale properties. The position also secured him U.S. residency. “I wasn’t going to fit in China anymore,” he says. “I liked it here much better.”
The early-1990s recession eventually led to Liang’s layoff from the design firm. So he opened his own portrait studio in a building in Fenway Park—a building in which John Singer Sargent had once painted. His skills and reputation grew, and in 1998, one of his works won the Best of Show and People’s Choice awards at a gathering of the American Society of Portrait Artists.
But he remained always eager for new subjects and new challenges, and a turning point came one day in 2001. Driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike, Liang spotted a billboard for Plimoth Plantation. The other side of the sign, for an adjacent but less-visited historic village of the local Wampanoag tribe, is what grabbed Liang’s attention. “There was a present-day photo of a half-naked Indian man holding a bow and arrow,” he says. “I thought, Wow, this could be an interesting narrative story to paint. So I determined to find him.”
Liang tracked down the man, who agreed to pose for him in traditional attire while demonstrating authentic hunting techniques. “All his gear and weapons were real. He showed me how you hunt a deer and how you put your hand over its still-beating heart and say prayers to transfer the animal’s soul back to Mother Nature.” Liang took hundreds of reference photos, then read extensively on the subject.
The result was a series of eight paintings, “my first American Indian paintings ever,” Liang says. In 2002, he sent slides of them, along with a bio, to Maryvonne Leshe, managing partner of Trailside Galleries in Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson Hole, WY. An offer of exclusive representation soon followed, and Trailside sold most of those eight works before the actual canvases even arrived at the gallery.
Thus began what Liang has come to regard as his true life’s calling. He delved deeply into American Indian culture and history—reading books and academic papers, visiting museums and archives, attending powwows, building his own collection of artifacts, and meeting and making friends with tribal members from the Northeast to the Great Plains to the Southwest. In 2004, Liang moved to the town of Agoura Hills, CA, to be closer to western tribes.
Now happily working in the home he shares with his wife, Li Xin, and their two daughters, ages 14 and 12, Liang sits at his easel surrounded by books and historic photographs, his walls covered in just part of his collection of artifacts he uses for reference. He feels thoroughly, contentedly, in his element.
“This is my most satisfying thing to do,” he concludes. “For their daily life, their family structure, their respect for their elders, I can very much relate to the Indians. I’m using my skill, my understanding, and my imagination to make art and help preserve Indian culture, to keep alive stories that might otherwise vanish. I feel like I’m doing something meaningful in this world, in my life. I’ll just keep on this path.”
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