Honest work

The mindset of the starving artist keeps Jian Wang hungry for inspiration and his paintings honest

“Moonlight,” 2005.

“Moonlight,” 2005.

“Great artists have no country.”
—Alfred de Musset

If, on some early morning yet to come, you find yourself walking or jogging along the American River Parkway, you might happen upon a man feverishly applying paint to canvas, replicating or interpreting the play of early morning sunlight as it dances on the river’s surface. If you happen upon this man, you should know that what you are seeing is not a one-time event. He’s been out there on more than 100 mornings, engaged in that same activity at that same spot on the riverbank.

That man is Jian Wang, a painter possessed by his art. There is precedent for his kind of obsession, of course. A century ago, Monet, at his home in Giverny, was busy painting the same scene—water lilies on his pond, a subject he painted nearly every morning for some 20 years. And there are other stories of artists who were just as passionately committed to their work.

But even in the context of those stories, Wang’s discipline and dedication is remarkable, and the man in front of that canvas in the early morning light is a rare specimen, indeed. He’s an immigrant to these shores who has overcome all the usual hurdles, of language and culture, to succeed in his adopted country in a field that favors very few. American graduate schools bestow some 10,000 Master of Fine Arts degrees each and every year, but only the tiniest fraction of those graduates ever make their living as working artists.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Wang came a long way to find himself among that small number, all the way from the city of Dalian in northern China. Along the way, he had to get past a Cultural Revolution over there, and go through a cultural immersion over here, arriving in Sacramento from his native China in 1986. He was 28 years old in that year, his move to the States sponsored by Marjorie Francisco, a retired art teacher from Sacramento who was teaching at the Dalian Railway Institute where Wang was a lecturer in engineering who oversaw the school’s art club on the side.

“I’m not a man who make careful plans,” he said. Though his English is good, and his vocabulary is large, he still speaks with a slight accent and occasionally puts articles (the, an, a) where they don’t belong, or leaves them out altogether. Since Chinese grammar doesn’t include articles, they are a major headache for Chinese people learning English.

But that small matter is, of course, only one of the challenges Wang faced when he readily, and somewhat impulsively, decided to leave China for the United States. He sees it as a character flaw. “I make a decision just like that, on spur of the moment without thinking of consequences, and then I have to make it work out.”

When he made that decision to come to the United States, he had a wife and a daughter in China, and $200 in his pocket. Francisco encouraged him to make the decision (“I could see that he had something special,” she said), and he didn’t hesitate. Francisco also eased his transition here, paying for his plane ticket and introducing him to members of the local art community.

“I’m not very good at calculating or planning,” he said, and what he seems to mean is that anyone who was judicious about weighing odds and calculating probabilities would never have left a settled life in China for the elusive dreams of becoming an artist in the States. “When Marjorie ask me if I have the courage to come to America, I say sure but I did not know what that courage means.”

“Papper-white,” 2005.

He smiled warmly. “I still remember that first impression of the United States,” Wang said, “as Marjorie drive me out of the airport and onto the freeways of San Francisco. Dalian is a big city, but I had never seen so many cars. The maze of roads and overpass bridges—stunning to see the engineering of this country.”

The years between those first impressions and the success he would come to enjoy were filled with dedication characterized by hard and honest work. Sometimes he painted so much that he raised calluses on the fingers that worked his brushes.

Honesty may not be the first word associated with the art world, where pretension, affectation, and posturing are not unknown, but Wang’s work is always honest, always true. Five years ago, in a brief speech to a group of a hundred or so people who came to the opening of a show of his work at the Solomon Dubnick Gallery in Sacramento, Wang said, “I hope people will see in my paintings an honest man doing honest work.”

His paintings cover the full range of subjects for artists—still lifes, nudes, landscapes. But, he said, “Subject matter is very minor. It’s how the work is done that matters most. The paintings we remember are not because of what was painted, but how they were painted. I’m not searching for the next great subject, but how to make the next subject I paint great. The subject of a painting is always old. What is unique is the visual story that the subject tells. That will survive. The subject matter is only a vehicle. A nude or a sunrise—the subject doesn’t change the way I work. What matters is how I painted—the fingerprint of the artist. I would hope that viewers of my work are able to sometimes ignore the work as descriptive and see it instead as pure play between compositional elements.”

He has an absolute insistence on not accepting sham. “The fundamental fraud of a painter like Thomas Kinkade,” Wang said, “is that he does not bring anything new to you. He is a genius in the sense of selling a product. It can bring joy to people, like buying a car, but the work does not have a self-supporting life in its visual language. The claim that he is the ‘artist of light’ is a marketing tool. If the popularity of an artist is to survive their own lifetime, it must have unique visual language plus bring new experience for that generation, a new way to see.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

And that personal definition of what an artist must struggle to do sometimes forces Wang to abandon a work in progress.

“Once in awhile, I stop a painting not because I’m not painting well, but because I’m painting too well. In each painting, I hope people can sense an imperfect struggle. If I’m painting too well, I’m complacent. The struggle is part of the work, and when I am painting too well, I’m not engaged in that struggle.”

The word “struggle” comes up frequently in Wang’s conversation. “I am,” he said, “struggling to be true to an inner voice, and to share that struggle with a viewer.”

In a documentary about Wang’s work shown on local PBS channel KVIE, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t always know when a brush stroke is right, but I always know when it’s wrong.”

Though he has known uncommon success as an artist, with more than 1,000 canvases sold at ever-increasing prices, he still adheres to the notion of the starving artist. “The image of the starving artist is important to me,” he said. “At the beginning of a career, the starving is for food and income, but after success the hunger is for ideas and for motivation. Starving is a good paradigm for the artist at all stages. You’re always starving, always in doubt, hungry for new inspiration.”

“Jena,” 2001.

That hunger led him back to China early this spring because, he said, “I wanted to try to find something that would make my work look like a Chinese painter’s work. That idea came to me about a year ago, and now I think about it constantly.”

But his return to his homeland did not produce the intended results. “I couldn’t force myself to be a Chinese painter,” he said with a faint smile, though there was a hint of melancholy in his tone. “It’s sad to say, but there’s nothing really Chinese in my work. I was trained in the western tradition, even as a young man in China. During the Cultural Revolution, the idea of the communists was to break all cultural ties with the past. As a kid, I read Balzac and other western writers. For some reason, all that interested me more—western painters, writers, musicians.”

And though he lived in his homeland until he was 28 years old, there are elements of Chinese culture that remain foreign to him. Growing up during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, traditional Chinese culture was largely set aside, and Chinese-Americans living in the States during that same period knew more about the art and traditions of China than the people living there.

He debunked the widespread talk of Chinese wealth. “Despite all the talk of the prosperity in China,” he said, “the nation as a whole is still a third-world country. Seventy-five percent of the people are peasants. I heard on TV in Shanghai where the government was bragging that with the new five-year budget, they might achieve running water for as much as half of the population. Think of it. Half the people without running water. Progress has benefited only a few, and those mostly in the coastal areas.”

He worried, too, about the tendency in the United States to hype fear, and he worried that fear of Chinese military power gets oversold here. “The U.S. has an annual military budget of some $500 billion. The Chinese annual military budget is $38 billion. So where is the reason for our fear of Chinese military expansion?”

“Untitled,” 2001.

He had intended to stay longer in China this summer, but business and family matters brought him home early. And the troubles that brought him home have left him mildly depressed, though few people would be able to detect his mood. He is a man who is extraordinarily attentive to making other people feel comfortable. His personal graciousness notwithstanding, Wang is going through a rough patch. Despite the kind of success most artists would surely envy, he has reached a point in his career where he wonders about the direction his work should take.

Nor was that his only reason for sadness when SN&R spoke to Wang. He was facing hip-replacement surgery because of a poorly healed injury, sustained in a fall from a tree some years ago, and his wife, Bonnie, is back in Kansas City tending to a business investment that is hemorrhaging money. He also was faced with the task of producing paintings for three shows that were fast approaching. Though his studio in Carmichael is crammed with paintings, his personal code demands that new shows consist of all new work. Add to all of that the fact that his daughter, Annie, left recently for Chicago to begin a career in architecture and you have, in the words of the current cliché, a man with a very full plate.

In spite of all that, “I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone who is a more successful human being,” said Phil Hitchcock, gallery director at CSUS. “He’s someone who took the chance, took the fear on head-on. Left China, came here. Lived in a different environment away from his wife. Never saw how he couldn’t get there; it was ‘How am I going to get there.’”

And because he got here and got “there,” Sacramento can lay claim to Wang as a local boy made good. It was here he received the second stage of his art training, studying first under Fred Dalkey at Sacramento City College, then with the famed and revered Wayne Thiebaud, and others, at UC Davis.

But the morning he sat down with SN&R, Wang wanted to tell the tale of his first teacher, Fulia Zhang, a man who taught art in a high school in Dalian. Had it not been for this man, nearly everything in Wang’s life would have been different. Zhang had been shown some of Wang’s drawings and, though Wang was just a boy in second grade, Zhang saw enough potential in the young boy’s work to invite him to participate in an after-school art program. Dalian was a city of some 4 million people—eight times the size of Sacramento—but the opportunities to study art were limited.

“Bob 2,” 2001.

“During that period—Cultural Revolution time—art education was considered very important because art could be used for propaganda, and the western way of training artists had become very important. In China, the word for propaganda is a positive word.”

Because of the uses of art for purposes of propaganda, the after-school art program Wang attended was fully staffed with teachers and assistants, all of them trained in the ways of western art. There was no reference to traditional Chinese art.

“To paint a billboard or a poster depicting workers, farmers, soldiers,” Wang said, “the subject matter of that kind of propaganda lends itself to western styles, so the western way of training artists became very important in China during Cultural Revolution time.”

Zhang lived at the school, totally dedicated to art and to his students. “His wife worked elsewhere, and they only saw each other once a year. Because he lived like that, he could accompany his students in the studio every day until 10 p.m., and even on weekends. We students also provided company to him. I always spent Chinese New Year with him, to give him company. He was like a father, more than my own father. My dad worked in the Navy shipyards as a radar engineer. I only see him a few days a year, and when he’s home, he’s very cranky.”

“Anyway, Mr. Zhang, I think, was a lonely man,” Wang recalled, “but his dedication to his students resolved his loneliness. I was only in second grade, in elementary school. He took me in as a special student.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

So night after night, Wang would draw and paint in Zhang’s studio, and then he would go home to continue drawing in a corner of the 12-square-meter living space he shared with three generations of his relatives, making dozens of drawings in hopes of impressing his teacher with the new work he took to show him on Sundays.

“My mother would stay up to read as a way of giving me permission to stay up and use the light.”

Zhang never accepted payments or gifts from students. “When I graduated from elementary school,” Wang said. “I was supposed to go to a different school, one without an art program, but Mr. Zhang wanted to make sure I went to his school. And that is the foundation that I have. For him now, in his 70s, knowing that I make a living in America as an artist gives him much pride. He was talented and passionate about art, a great teacher.”

There were not only things to be learned once Wang arrived in Sacramento, but there also were things to be unlearned. Each of our teachers, it seems, takes us as far as we need to go to be ready for the next one.

“I do know who break me from Mr. Zhang,” Wang said. “Wayne Thiebaud. I was studying with him at Davis many years after my time with Mr. Zhang, and he said to me, ‘You know, Jian, your work is too stark. It has no life in it. You need to break up your palette.’”

“Still life with fruit with square,” 2001.

Thiebaud, now Sacramento’s most famous artist, introduced Wang to the work of Wolf Kahn and, in yet another example of Wang’s dedication and discipline, he copied dozens of Kahn’s paintings in order to teach himself that man’s use of color.

“At every stage of my progress as an artist,” Wang said, “the right person turned up. Like Fred Dalkey, my first teacher here in Sacramento at city college. I learned so much from his work and his understanding about art. He loaned me my first set of pastels to make the work for my first show. He has done far more than as just a teacher, in the sense of true caring about my being happy and a success here.

“It was kindness of Sacramento people that enabled me to do my work and survive. If I had landed in New York, I’d have been buried.”

One Sacramentan who thinks highly of Wang and his work is Scott Shields, curator of the Crocker Art Museum. “Jian’s not only a good artist, but a good guy,” Shields said, “and he deserves all the recognition he gets.”

Shields is considering putting together a show of what he calls the Sacramento Valley School of Landscape. Asked what defines such a school, and who would be in it, he said, “subject matter, first and foremost, would define the Sacramento school. Obviously, Sacramento landscapes tend to be flat, but there’s a shared quality of light among these painters, and the rivers here tend to be common subject matter, and most of them work with thick applications of paint.”

“Cocktail, red,” 2004.

Shields identified two generations of this Sacramento school. The first, he said, “includes people like Wayne Thiebaud, Fred Dalkey, Gregory Kondos, and Roland Petersen. The second group includes Pat Mahoney, Mark Bowles, Patrick Dullanty, Ning Hou, and, of course, Jian Wang.”

But, he’s quick to add, Wang’s work transcends landscape. “One of the things about his work is that he’s very versatile, working with a range of subjects. He has a lot more paintings left to produce. He’s young, he knows his craft and it will remain interesting to follow his career.”

Shields said, “In some of his paintings, there are as many as 17 colors in a single stroke. The eye sees them as one, but they’re all there. He weaves colors in every brush stroke.”

And red is nearly always in that weaving, even where you might not expect to find it. There is a lot of red in Wang’s paintings—sunrises and sunsets that explode with that color, and models who are, more often than not, redheads. And then there is his run of paintings of cut watermelon, red as fire.

When asked why there is so much red in his work, Wang said, “In Chinese culture, the red is a happy color. Holidays are always associated with red, and the red paper that presents come wrapped in is considered good luck. Red means life. But here’s the ironic thing: I have a phobia about blood. I can faint to see blood.”

The words linger in the air. “Red means life.” Survey the profusion of work in Wang’s studio, or go see one of his shows. Red is everywhere. Luck is there, too, once you know Wang’s story—the luck of good teachers who turned up just when he needed them.

And there is life in all that red, too—life celebrated, felt, lived and filtered through Wang’s consciousness in thousands upon thousands of drawings and canvases, an artist’s honest work honestly rendered. Life exalted, whether rendered in the studio or on the banks of the American River each morning as the sun comes up.