DENISE CHAN


Yen-Hua Lee at Taipei Cultural Center

By DENISE CHAN

Yen-Hua Lee walks into the Taipei Cultural Center on a Tuesday morning wearing a multi-colored beret and a faded orange wool jacket.  She spots a familiar face – Mr. Liu, an officer at the Center, and hops over enthusiastically to greet him. Backpack slung across her shoulders, Yen-Hua talks with the spirit of a teenage schoolgirl.

The 38-year-old artist identifies her work as both installation and mix-media, but her recent pieces have leaned towards the latter. Lee’s newest collection, Body Accounts has been showing at the Taipei Cultural Center since April 14th. These paintings carry a common undercurrent of angst and fear.

The main piece of her gallery is a silhouette with a head almost too large for its body to support – its black body filled with tangles of tree branches. This one, Yen-Hua explained, she painted when she was thinking of home one day. She emigrated from Taiwan six years ago, but says she is still trying to find where home is.

 

“I travel a lot,” says Lee who has done an artist residency in both Hungary and Austria. “So where is home? Is it where I am or where I’m from?” she says. Yen-Hua has definitely not forgotten where she’s from, as she often incorporates her native heritage into her artwork.  She sticks closely to black and white ink, the colors of Chinese calligraphy. “I want to use my culture to create an international language,” Yen-Hua explains.  The used books that she paints on are similar to Chinese rice paper, the medium used to write calligraphy on. 

“Traditional [Chinese] calligraphy is a big part of my life,” Lee says. Taiwanese public schools require children to practice calligraphy at a young age. But Yen-Hua started even earlier than most, due to an unfortunate accident that severed part of her right hand pointer finger when she was three. “My mother was afraid that other kids would laugh at me and that I would have trouble writing,” Yen-Hua said, “so she held my hand and taught me how to write [calligraphy] stroke for stroke.”

 “There is a little bit contrast between her personality and her work. The white and black reveals the sadness and stress in her mind.” Phillip Liu said, the man who Yen-Hua greeted earlier. “She is still unmarried and here alone in the States and she’s getting older. Last time we talked about her art and she mentioned this kind of mood,” Liu said.

Perhaps this is why Lee relates to the shadows in her paintings. The medium of many of her paintings are used books. Yen-Hua paints silhouettes right over the pages, but slyly reveals certain words to the viewer by adding watering down certain spots of ink. “I enjoy that feeling,. Can see, cannot see — you know?” Lee says. “Everyone has their own secrets; life is not always the way we show people.”

While many of Yen-Hua’s silhouettes are solid black with no facial features, the rare few that do – have fish for eyes. “It’s for comedy,” she says. “I’m like a fish under the sea. Open eye to see everything.” Yen-Hua revealed that she likes to observe people, especially since coming to the U.S. where social interaction is full of differences in culture. Her paintings can almost serve as a diary of interesting encounters she has had since coming to the U.S.

Yen-Hua recalled one of her more memorable stories during her artist residency; she met a woman that was also completing her artist residency at that time and left behind two small children back home. “She wanted natural milk for her babies, so she would use this large machine to pump it,” Yen-Hua said in an admiring tone. “I never saw anything like that in Taiwan.” She remembers clearly that the woman would bottle the milk and Fed-Ex it back home on a weekly basis. Struck by the fellow artists’ dedication and strength, Yen-Hua painted a silhouette of her.

             “These superficial figures make you look deeper into it for more profound meanings,” Susan Chen, a volunteer at the Taipei Cultural Center said. Chen decided to help out with Yen-Hua’s exhibition after personally meeting her at the reception earlier in April. “Even in the short time of knowing her, I find her a very special woman,” Chen said “It’s tough to survive in New York City and someone needs to help her out.” Yen-Hua commutes an hour and a half from White Plains home every morning. She works on window displays at Asian Arts as a full-time job to support her developing art career.

            Lee had originally intended to study medicine, “the more traditional major for the Chinese” as she calls it, but worked at a hospital for a year and decided that the life of a doctor did not suit her. “You should enjoy your job, otherwise there’s no passion, kind of lose something,” Yen-Hua explained. She switched majors and in 1996 completed her Associates Degree in Art and Design. From there Yen-Hua continued up the educational ladder to finish up both a Masters of Arts and Masters of Fine Arts.

            Printmaker Mirka Hokkanen, who attended graduate school at the University of Dallas with Yen-Hua, remembers her for her great sense of humor and homemade dishes that she would bring in for everyone to try. “[But] I felt bad for her some times, because I could see she was smart, but her English wasn’t very strong, so it would be hard for her to communicate her ideas to the teachers sometimes,” Hokkanen said.

            When Lee gets excited in a conversation, she often slips in Chinese idioms to fully express herself. Yen-Hua said, partly in Chinese, that she ultimately hopes to teach at a university. For now, she just enjoys being able to display her art across the city. Yen-Hua explains that her paintings help to strike up good conversation. “When you create art you do it alone. But it should be a circle. You learn something, and you also teach something.”

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