Mary Qian | Poetry in Brush Strokes

Mary Qian paints exquisite portraits of the people in her life

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Mary Qian, Pink, oil, 24 x 36.

Mary Qian, Pink, oil, 24 x 36.

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

On bitter cold and blustery days in Chicago, Mary Qian often finds refuge in a warm studio tucked inside the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts. The art club, housed in a venerable old mansion, sits in the heart of the city’s historic Gold Coast neighborhood. Artists like Qian treasure its north light and rich legacy—it’s an artistic oasis where legendary artists, such as William Merritt Chase and Richard Schmid, once roamed the halls.

Indeed, the Palette & Chisel is steeped in history and the ghosts of prominent artists past and present. Thus, it is a natural place for a recent art-school graduate, originally from Shanghai, China, to find a welcoming harbor. Such was the case for Qian (pronounced CHEE-en) when she first arrived in the Windy City in 2002, a newly minted graduate of Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.

Armed with a degree in fine arts and illustration, Qian came to the city eager to start her first post-college job with a video-game company. By day she created arenas for the violent fights in the fantasy-horror-themed game Mortal Kombat. But on the weekends, she rushed to the Palette & Chisel studios where she created, among other things, quiet, evocative figurative works from life. Many hours of open studios with available models allowed her to hone her craft, Qian says.

In 2005, after several years of weekend excursions to the Palette & Chisel, Qian won first place at the school’s annual Gold Medal Show. And in 2008, with gallery representation and a few more awards to her name, she decided it was time to retreat from the Mortal Kombat battlefield and begin her life as a serious, full-time fine artist. Today Qian is best known for her lush, exquisitely painted portraits and other figurative works.

This month her painting entitled LYLA is on view at the prestigious Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition of Traditional Oils at Eisele Gallery of Fine Art in Cincinnati, OH. It depicts a child nestled in her mother’s lap and can, in many ways, be considered a quintessential Qian painting—one that features expressive brushwork and conveys a contemplative, moody sensibility. Dressed in a pink-and-purple smock, the young girl stares intently at a toy in her hands. Her mother wraps an arm around her and appears to savor a simple, quiet, everyday moment with her daughter.

What turns the everyday moment into a scene of beauty is the way Qian depicts the relationship, capturing both the mother’s demeanor as well the child’s complete absorption in the toy. There is a subtle aura of magic in LYLA, as in much of Qian’s work. Viewers are left to bring their own narrative to the piece, and that is precisely what the artist prefers. Qian does explain, though, that while
LYLA may seem like a restful scene, the young girl’s head, in fact, was in perpetual motion while she posed. “When it comes to children as models, they are the bosses,” she says.

As this story was going to press, Qian was also finishing several figurative works for a group show titled Swing Into Spring, opening on Friday, May 12, at Saks Galleries in Denver. Catherine Saks, co-owner of the gallery, describes Qian’s work as elegant. “Mary’s flawless technique and sense of aesthetics seem so effortless and intuitive that her paintings invite us personally into her beautiful world,” Saks says. “The serene beauty creates a respite and a welcome visual journey for the viewer.”

Scott Jones, general manager of Legacy Gallery, also sings the artist’s praises. Jones first became aware of Qian’s work in 2005 at the annual OPA show. He was so impressed by her talents that when the gallery was selected to host the OPA national exhibition in 2010, he extended Qian an invitation to show her works with Legacy. “When her painting was awarded the OPA Gold Medal that year, it made for a great introduction to her work already in the gallery,” Jones says. “Our clients often mention the overall beauty of her paintings—the brushwork, soft edges, and luminescent skin tones.”

Qian is a long way from the bustling streets of Shanghai, the global financial hub of 24 million people where she was born and grew up. Early on there were certain expectations of the young girl. Her mother was a physicist, and her father was a chemist who also painted in his leisure time. At first Qian seemed predestined for a career in science. But like many Chinese children, Qian was also studying calligraphy and Chinese watercolor painting, and by age 19, she was certain she wanted to pursue art. Her parents completely supported the idea.

The only problem was that without any classical training, Qian had no hope of being accepted to an art college in China. She soon realized that the United States offered the best opportunities to follow her dreams. It turned out that her mother had friends who taught at Brigham Young University. Qian applied to the college and was accepted. She arrived at the university with no training in western art and barely able to speak English. “My reading ability was much better than speaking the language,” she says.

While at BYU, she fell in love with western art and works by artists such as Rembrandt and Velázquez. “Their paintings are technically excellent, but they go way beyond that,” Qian says. “They capture not only appearances but also emotion and humanism. The sitters become trapped souls for eternity; the works are timeless.”

It was also during college that she adopted the name Mary. “No one could pronounce my given name correctly. When people called me, I didn’t realize they were talking to me,” Qian recalls. “I eventually told everyone to just call me Mary.” She chose the name because when she was studying English in high school in China, the teacher had randomly assigned names to the students. She was proclaimed “Mary” and got used to responding to the name.

Reflecting on her childhood, Qian says that her father was an important influence on her. He imparted a love of poetry to her, and as a school girl she could recite more than 100 poems. In Chinese art, painters are often inspired by poetry, and the two artistic forms are combined. “A painting is finished when the artist inscribes a poem in calligraphy along with his signature,” Qian says. On occasion she has incorporated a poem into her western-style work, but not often. “The longer I have painted, the more I hesitate to write anything on a painting,” she says. “Both poetry and painting possess such a rich language. Each on its own expresses so much.”

But poetry does frequently inspire her work. The Chicago-based poet Richard Jones and his book The Blessing: New and Selected Poems are among her favorites. Qian explains that she has returned to Jones’ poems again and again to relish the words and imagery.

While Qian paints still lifes, urban scenes, and landscapes on occasion, she considers herself mainly a figurative and portrait artist. “The challenge of capturing not only a person’s image but their life spirit as well is what has driven me to paint,” Qian says. “A successful figurative painting creates an unspoken language between the viewer, the subject, and the artist. In my mind, it goes beyond just an image to reach the very essence not only of the sitter but the artist as well.”

After painting and working with models for many years both in her home studio and at Palette & Chisel, Qian has concluded that her best works often originate when the models aren’t posing but are resting or taking a break. “When models are posing, they are not completely themselves. They are trying to hold a pose, sometimes self-consciously,”
Qian says. “During breaks, they tend to relax. Sometimes in reclining poses, models will drift into semisleep, and the pose will relax in a positive way.”

Qian hesitates to label the style of her work. But after pondering a bit, she says that her style lies somewhere between “the broken color of impressionism and a tight realism.” She doesn’t hesitate, however, to offer a vivid description of her philosophy of art: “I feel like my art is like an open diary. It records my life, and the life around me. My paintings are my preferred way to explain myself to the world. They speak of the things I don’t know how to put into words.”

These days Qian visits her parents in China about once every two years. In 2013 they came to the States when Qian and her father, who paints landscapes, were featured in a two-person show at Palette & Chisel. Qian’s life is busy with shows and galleries. She now also serves on the Palette & Chisel’s board of directors, paints there regularly alongside both the aspiring and the accomplished, and counts fellow members among her closest friends. While she lives in
Chicago, she considers the Palette & Chisel her true home.

Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, Jackson, WY, and Bozeman, MT; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; Eisele Gallery of Fine Art, Cincinnati, OH.

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

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