Mary Qian | Homing Instincts

By Norman Kolpas

The chaotic crowds on Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s main shopping street, surged around Mary Qian one morning last fall. She and three other artists, with whom she’d traveled from Chicago, had set up easels to paint the colorful, bustling scene in one of the world’s busiest shopping districts, which sprawls westward through the city from the Huangpu River and the fabled, century-old riverfront district of the Bund.

“There were so many people watching us that it was disturbing,” Qian relates. And one of her painting companions, Pamela Gibson, has blonde hair that kept drawing particular attention from the dark-haired local passersby. “I just wasn’t able to concentrate on painting,” Qian laughs.

City Kid, oil, 9 x 12.

More satisfying for her on that particular day, however, was a small detour on which she led her painting companions, who also included Tim Leeming and Jose Antonio Bedolla. Off Nanjing Road, they strolled down an old alley, a narrow stretch of gray cement-and-stone walls punctuated by outdoor washbasins and brown wooden doors and window frames. Old women, squatting on tiny stools in the open air, watched curiously as Qian introduced her friends to the neighborhood where she had grown up in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

“It’s been such an adventure,” Qian says enthusiastically of that particular day’s personal excursion and of the three-week painting trip in general. She and her companions also visited the scenic old canal-laced town of Zhouzhuang, sometimes called the Venice of China, as well as Zhangjiajie, a national forest whose craggy, tree-clad spires were the models for the floating mountains in James Cameron’s Avatar.

But in fact, Qian’s declaration of adventure applies just as well to the 37-year-old painter’s entire life and career so far.

Judging from her background, it might have been a safe bet to predict a career in science for Qian. (The surname, by the way, is pronounced Chien.) “Both of my parents are scientists,” she says. “My dad is a chemist, and my mother is a physicist. So they didn’t think I would be an artist.” Off to the local science school she went, dutifully following those expectations even though, from earliest childhood, she had also felt a passion for traditional Chinese calligraphy. “It’s considered an art form, and throughout school I always did it in my spare time, along with Chinese-style watercolor painting.”

After she graduated from high school, it looked like Qian would continue to concentrate on science in college. “I wanted to go on to study art, but in that education system, I really didn’t have a choice,” she says. “In the U.S., there are more open opportunities.”

Fortunately, her parents listened to her wishes—and her mother recalled that she had a good friend in the United States who worked at Brigham Young University, which has an outstanding art department. Qian applied and was granted permission to come to Provo, UT, to study art for six months. She ended up staying for five years, earning degrees in both representational painting and computer animation.

The two degrees, Qian explains, helped her achieve the well-rounded art education she had long desired. The art department at BYU focused on abstract and conceptual work, she explains. “They very strongly discouraged the kind of figurative painting that, from the very beginning, has excited and inspired me. But I did learn craftsmanship from them, how the paint works, how the canvas works.” On the other hand, her studies in computer animation—which feeds so many graduates into companies producing games or films that recreate realistic worlds on small and large screens—put a high value on precisely what she needed: “They encouraged drawing and painting from life.”

In fact, Qian developed so much skill in digital art that when she graduated in 1998, she landed a job working for a division of Warner Bros. specializing in video games. She gained expertise in creating backgrounds and characters alike, and the job moved her to Chicago in 2002. “I really loved animation,” she says, summing up those years.

But all along, a greater creative passion kept her enthralled during her evenings and weekends: painting. She began working and studying at Chicago’s respected Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, winning second place in their 2004 Gold Medal Show and first place a year later; she now serves on the club’s board of directors. And Qian gradually evolved her own distinctive style of figurative work. It’s a dynamic combination of realism and impressionism that is informed by her exposure to European figurative artists, while also enhanced by subtleties of execution and expression that clearly derive from the graceful traditions of Chinese watercolor and calligraphy.

“Even with long-dead artists, you can feel their presence,” Qian says. “I love Titian, and I got to see a show of his works on a trip to Naples. I was inspired to see the works of other masters like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Velazquez, and also of the 19th-century Italian painter Antonio Mancini.” She continues, “The style I love the most is Russian impressionism—painters like Nicolai Fechin, Ilya Repin, and Ivan Kramskoy. But they are more muted, and my work is a little more colorful.”

With continued success in the Palette & Chisel exhibitions, and a Best of Show award at the prestigious Salon International juried exhibition in 2007, Qian was inspired to leave the world of computer animation and become a full-time painter in 2008. “It was a hard decision to leave a job for a lifestyle that was not as stable,” she recalls. “But painting is what I love more than anything.”

Today she works both in a studio near the Palette & Chisel and at her own home studio. Qian’s love of painting shines through in her figurative canvases, which present seemingly unposed subjects that somehow feel vibrantly alive. “My best paintings happen when the model is taking a break or even taking a nap,” the artist explains. “For me, it’s about capturing the human spirit, not just addressing the technical side of painting.”

In the Rain, oil, 30 x 24.

You can see that happening vividly in works like IN THE RAIN, one of many portraits she’s done of a favorite model named Robin. “That painting was inspired by a poem she wrote,” Qian says, and the title brings fresh meaning to the impressionistic drips that frame the highly realistic figure. She goes on to explain that she and other painter friends have established a continuing project in which they collaborate with poets around the world to inspire each others’ visual and written works. “Chinese paintings aren’t considered finished until they have poetry in them,” she notes. “One doesn’t necessarily illustrate or explain the other. But I find it interesting and want to do paintings based on poetry, and have my friends write poems based on my paintings.”

It’s an ambitious approach that can add extra layers of meaning not always present in figure paintings. To that same end, she has also begun to paint more figures outdoors, striving to achieve deeper truths by enlisting a subject’s surroundings. “I like to have the foreground of the painting to capture a person’s spirit,” Qian explains. “Then the environment adds to it by capturing a mood. Including a portrait of the street helps to say something about the person in that street.”

Indeed, this new direction for Qian is one reason she was so excited about her most recent trip to China, which she manages to visit every year or two. “Some of the places we visited are homes to different minority groups, and we hired local models,” she says. “Painting people in daily life, including their locations, made for more interesting subjects.”

In speaking of China now, Qian seems to have her feet firmly and contentedly planted in two very different worlds seven thousand miles apart. “When I’m traveling from the U.S. to China, I tell people that I’m going home,” she says with a chuckle. “But when I’m in Shanghai and people ask me where I’m from, I say Chicago. I love Chicago very, very much. It’s become my home.”

To be sure, it has. Still, however settled she may be in her new home and her calling, with her painting career booming and so many new ideas she looks forward to exploring, Mary Qian will no doubt continue to enjoy a life filled with adventure.

Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago, IL; Downey Gallery, Santa Fe, NM;

Upcoming shows
Group show, Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, February 17-25.
Governor’s Invitational Art Show & Sale, Loveland Museum/Gallery, Loveland, CO, April 23–June 5.

Featured in January 2011.