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This article on Katherine Chang Liu, written by Judith Fairly, originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Magazine.
With Pink Floyd playing in the background to block out external noise, Katherine Chang Liu seizes fragments of time to work in her studio. When she first began painting in the late 1970s, Chang Liu often worked deep into the night, and she’s maintained that discipline throughout her career. Now caring for an elderly parent, this new schedule is a challenge for her, but she has resolved not to allow the demands on her time to become an excuse not to work. “It’s your life and you learn to use it,” she says with the same measure of equanimity and positivity that have contributed to her success as an artist.
Katherine Chang Liu’s Path to Art
In the same way that “life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” art was not even a port of call on Chang Liu’s more practical career path. She was born in China and reared in Taiwan during an era when students were encouraged to study math and science in order to catch up with technological advancements in the West. Chang Liu attended the University of California, Berkeley, on a full scholarship, eventually earning a master’s degree in nutritional sciences, but delayed making a decision about pursuing a doctorate when she and her husband moved to Indiana for two years. Unable to find work, she took a sculpture class at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where she ultimately concluded that three-dimensional art was not her strong suit.
When her husband was offered a position in Roanoke, Virginia, a series of events were set in motion that would divert Chang Liu from her background in science and set her on the road to becoming an artist. “Roanoke was the birthplace of my life as an artist,” she says. In the flourishing arts community of southwestern Virginia, she made friends with other artists and joined a group that often met for figure drawing. “All my growth as an artist had to do with my friends,” says Chang Liu. The natural beauty and mild climate of the Shenandoah Valley, bordered to the west by the Blue Ridge Mountains and to the east by the Appalachians, beckoned to Chang Liu, and she began painting landscapes en plein air.
Ann Masters, who ran the Roanoke Fine Arts Center (now the Taubman Museum of Art), gave Katherine Chang Liu an opportunity to show her work at the Borrow and Buy Gallery, adjacent to the main exhibition space; later, Masters invited her to teach classes there. Within three short years, Chang Liu was receiving awards for her work and judging competitions. “It was lucky that I learned to paint in a small, supportive community instead of a large city, where the competition can overwhelm fledgling artists,” she says. “Roanoke was the determining factor in my becoming an artist.”
Katherine Chang Liu’s Progression to Abstraction
Several years later, Katherine Chang Liu and her husband moved to southern California, where she still resides. All along, she thought that art was a temporary pursuit, just a way to buy time until she went back to science. Chang Liu, rearing her kids, delayed the decision to finish her doctorate; she started painting, in part because she needed something to put on her walls, but she didn’t think of art as a career. She loved what she was doing, though, and worked very hard at it, sometimes painting through the night. Her career took off in Los Angeles; doors opened for her, even when she didn’t know where those doors would lead. “If I had tried to plan a career,” says Chang Liu, “I don’t know if I would have come to the same place as an artist.”
Katherine Chang Liu’s early paintings were watercolor landscapes; over a period of time, they evolved into more abstract compositions. Her progression toward abstraction seems natural, as finely detailed paintings of rocks and small miracles of nature gave way to an increasingly focused approach to breaking down imagery into fragmented planes of color. It’s not difficult to perceive the scientist’s eye guiding the artist’s hand in Chang Liu’s work, the two working in tandem to tease out the poetic from the practical.
Division of Space
In Katherine Chang Liu’s mixed-media work, her titles come first—a word or phrase that provokes a visual image, a thought that she strives to maintain consistently throughout the process. She wants the final painting to express the word she began with, to condense the narrative into “one breath.” Much of this effort is conducted on an intellectual or emotional level, with technique almost a secondary activity. The finished work becomes a reflection of this process, a map of her internal landscape.
Though her method relies on intuition, Katherine Chang Liu’s paintings are always planned, which frees her to improvise or make changes as she goes. Once she has decided on a title, she decides on the division of space, placement of the major shapes, and areas of transition or contrast. She can “see” the painting in her head; by the time she lays down the drawing on her surface, she has already done eight to 10 sketches.
Constructing a Stage
Katherine Chang Liu paints as if she were constructing a stage; each painting has a minimum of eight layers, and some have as many as 20. Though she finds paper the most “seductive” surface to work with, it’s not as practical as wood panel, which is sturdy, lightweight, and easier to ship than canvas or paper. She gives the panel two coats of flat gesso, letting it dry between coats without sanding in order to maintain the texture. As she builds up the layers, Chang Liu draws on the strata of collage—found elements, letters, family documents, magazine and newspaper clippings, as well as designs and drawings created on her computer for the specific painting—with Pitt oil-based pastel pencil and India ink. Mindful of using color in a meaningful way rather than as a decorative element, she’s likely to use more color in the foundational layers, diluting or strengthening the hues as she builds up the layers.
Subtraction as Process
As she works, Katherine Chang Liu pays as much attention to taking out things as she does to adding new ones. “When I paint, I don’t back up or try to ‘fix’ problems until the painting is almost complete,” she says. “I am quick to find fault, and that takes the joy out of painting.”
At the end of the day, Katherine Chang Liu makes comments on sticky notes and affixes them to the painting; this draws her back to the studio with a place to start the next day. Once the painting is 70 to 80 percent done, Chang Liu gives it a critical evaluation. Her analytical left brain dominates when it comes to planning her paintings and judging artwork; she can give a painting the “quick eye”—a cool-headed, objective assessment—to ascertain whether it’s working. Two or three days after the painting is completed, she comes back to it and adjusts the elements, simplifying them or making them more ornate, always looking for a balance of simplicity and complexity. Finally, she coats the piece with a couple of layers of matte acrylic polymer varnish, using a flat, natural-bristle house-painting brush and allowing each layer to dry completely before applying the next.
Learning to Stretch
Katherine Chang Liu has been teaching for more than three decades, and she still derives pleasure from helping her students develop their own art language. She has watched a small cohort of students grow under her tutelage. “We’re all stretchable in our abilities,” she says. “We just need to learn to stretch.” As with her own paintings, she analyzes her students’ work with her left brain; with her right, she envisions what they are trying to achieve, thus earning from them the affectionate sobriquet, “The Art Whisperer.”
Navigating a path between East and West, art and science, parental expectations and unexpected opportunities, academic achievement and latent talent, and complexity and simplicity with a balance of grace and assurance, Katherine Chang Liu is something of a paradox; she has worked hard to achieve success as an artist without really having that ambition in mind. To this day, she sometimes wonders if she made the right decision not to pursue a career in science, though she’s in demand as a studio artist, teacher, curator, and juror. ”Unlike science, art is a combination of so many complexities,” she says. “If you pay attention to your personality, the kind of art you make reflects it.”
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