East to West to East Coast

Chico painter Chunhong Chang prepares to show her culture-blending works in New York City

CHI WIZ At home in her backyard studio, Chunhong Chang goes with the flow as she taps in to the chi of the eastern section of one of her “In Congruence” paintings. At top, “In Congruence—Lemons; opposite, “In Congruence—Red Pear.”

CHI WIZ At home in her backyard studio, Chunhong Chang goes with the flow as she taps in to the chi of the eastern section of one of her “In Congruence” paintings. At top, “In Congruence—Lemons; opposite, “In Congruence—Red Pear.”

Photo By Tom Angel

Chunhong Chang tells the story of how as a teenager in Taipei, Taiwan, one of her high-school art teachers would walk between the rows of desks and tear students’ paintings to pieces if he didn’t like them. If he ripped a painting into two pieces, the student would have to bring in two paintings the following week. If he tore it into four pieces, the student owed him four paintings. “I was always a good student, so I didn’t have too much trouble,” Chang says modestly.

That talent and discipline have served her well. Now 38 years old, the soft-spoken Chang is in the final stages of preparing the paintings she will be showing at New York City’s prestigious Island Weiss Gallery in the fall—putting the finishing touches on a couple of them before the mixed-media paintings are packed and shipped back east.

Chang has not only become one of Chico’s top painters, but the “good student” is also fast becoming widely known for her meticulously beautiful East/West-themed paintings. Her artwork is a reflection of her own journey from the Far East to the West Coast, and her story of diligently working her way up from humble and trying beginnings to becoming an artist who can command $10,000 for a single painting has a fairytale-like quality to it, a story made even more endearing by the gentle and sincere way Chang tells it.

Chang and I sit before “In Congruence—Floral,” a striking 6-by-6-foot painting of flowers of various types in warm tones—reds, oranges, yellows—done in Chang’s unmistakable trademark style of insetting a relatively small Western European-style still-life canvas into a larger Chinese nature scene painted onto wood.

Chang describes how she paints the outer Chinese section of her pieces, delicately moving her hand to demonstrate how she starts with a dark brush line that she guides around the canvas to outline perhaps flowers or animals, in a manner similar to the flowing black brushstrokes of Chinese calligraphy.

“The Western and Eastern approaches to space are different,” Chang explains. “In the Western tradition, a three-dimensional illusion [such as in a still life of a vase of flowers] is represented from one perspective. In the East, the perspective is floating, flowing. What is most interesting about Chinese painting is the chi energy that the Chinese try to capture in their painting. In a successful painting, you can see and feel the energy movement…”

Courtesy Of Chunhong Chang

“The center [Western] section of most of my paintings is a cultural reference to 16th- and 17th-century Dutch still-life painters,” Chang points out, pulling out the Taschen book, Still Life, by Norbert Schneider, and flipping through it to show me her inspiration—the gorgeous, dark-background still-life work of such famous painters as Jan Davidsz de Heem, Pieter Claesz and Georg Flegel. “This type of painting requires a lot of concentration and quietness. … Quietness, meditation and concentration. It’s hard in contemporary society [to find these things].”

The disciplined Chang makes the time to paint in her quiet, white-walled, backyard studio daily. She paints Monday through Friday for eight hours a day, “lately even on Saturday and Sunday,” while her two children, 6-year-old Sonia and 4-year-old Ian, are in kindergarten and preschool or back at home with their nanny, Ching Hsu, or their father, Chang’s husband Nelson Anthoine.

Chang took to the discipline of painting at an early age. “I always knew since I was a little girl that I wanted to be a painter,” she tells me with an earnest light in her eyes. “[Beginning] when I was 5 or 6, I painted every day. I had a whole wall of my paintings in my room.”

At age 12, shortly after her father passed away, Chang, whose family was poor, convinced an art teacher at her school who thought Chang had talent to give her after-school painting lessons, at first for a little money, later for free when Chang could no longer afford the cost. After this training, Chang attended the previously mentioned vocational-art high school in Taipei, studying both Chinese brush painting and Western-style painting, where the instructors were obviously very strict—"like a military high school,” Chang remembers. “I learned so much there, though. We had tons of homework. I worked till 2 or 3 in the morning every day.”

Chang went on to receive her BA in art from a teachers college near Taipei, which provided graduates with a job teaching art in the public schools. No surprise: Chang graduated No. 1 in her class.

Chang is the perfect conduit for the message of East/West harmony that she promotes through her paintings. She came to the United States in 1996 to take a break from her career as a public-school art teacher for fifth- and sixth-graders and pursue a master of arts degree in art at Chico State University, which she received in 2000. Here she met and fell in love with Anthoine.

Chang is also well-traveled in other parts of Asia, having spent time in Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, Japan and China.

Courtesy Of Chunhong Chang

Winner of last year’s Annie award for Best Visual Artist, Chang currently has paintings showing locally at Chico Paper Co. and in San Francisco. She has also shown her work to great acclaim in Seattle and Los Angeles but has had to cease supplying paintings to the Seattle and L.A. galleries in order to meet the increasing demand for her work in New York.

One can still purchase a Chunhong Chang painting at Chico Paper Co. for the relatively low price of $3,000.

Chico Paper co-owner Jana Strong says emphatically of Chang, “We feel very fortunate that she’s still even showing [her art] in Chico. I think that she has touched upon something very unique that’s timeless. She paints what she knows. She paints her history…”

“East, West—it’s all in me,” Chang states plainly. “[And] everyone has the potential to understand other cultures. … We [all] breathe the same air, we use the same water, we all share the same earth—all the good things that the kindergarten teacher teaches,” she says with a gentle laugh. “That’s what all the human beings need to remember. Share. Don’t grab. It’s very simple. Nothing fancy about it.”

Chang’s current series of paintings—which she began working on in 1999 while doing her MA work—is entitled “In Congruence,” which is a positive play on the word “incongruence.”

“My thesis, what I was working on, was religious image comparison,” Chang reflects. “I made a series of paintings exploring Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity, looking at what is a god. … What kind of god do they show?” Chang uses the term “god” not necessarily in the Western sense of God—and not necessarily not in that sense, either. “After that [work], I had a conclusion about what is ‘God.’ I think there is only one god, and ‘he’ is interpreted differently in the different religions.”

Chang continues, “My ‘In Congruence’ series says: We are all one. We [each] have our identity—name, title, children and so on—but on a deeper level we are one. It doesn’t matter if I am Asian and you are Caucasian—that’s just on the outside. My paintings are intended to give the viewer a sense of a deeper connection between East and West—and everybody. … There is a yin and yang movement between the two sections of my paintings. Using the inset creates tempo, rhythm and dialogue between the Western inside and the Eastern outside sections. The viewer makes them move; the viewer moves between them.

“I see in the future a global culture,” Chang advises thoughtfully. “I’m hoping it’s a kind of culture that can accept other cultures and combine them. It doesn’t mean lose your identity. You can combine them. One [culture] doesn’t have to dominate another.

“There are two main points to my work: Unity between that which seems incongruous and timelessness. What I want to create with my art is eternity, something beyond my life.”