Interview with Chinatown Artist Mr. Liu (Oakland Asian Cultural Center)

Mr. Liu provides insight on how working with students in Oakland brings unique perspectives to the art of Chinese paintings. Interpretation provided by Carmen Chan, Program Assistant at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

Art as togetherness: Mr. Liu’s work in Oakland embraces the culture of immigration
Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Shu Yi Liu, or Mr. Liu, as he is known, a renowned artist and Chinese drawing and painting teacher, is a fixture of Oakland’s Chinatown. He is the type of community figure that can’t walk down the street without bumping into someone he knows, and the type of person that relishes these interactions. Since he moved from China to Oakland 26 years ago, Mr. Liu has witnessed his neighborhood transform around him and his former students blossom. He takes pride in being able to recall many of his former students, some of which now attend prestigious universities and work for the city of Oakland. As I spoke with him and our translator Carmen Chan, the Programs Assistant at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC), he thumbed through a photo book of his students and shuffled through piles of student artwork, searching for examples of how their artwork bridges Eastern and Western art traditions with styles of brush strokes or their use of color.

“He really enjoys his students’ work a lot,” Carmen said, which was evident even without translation; each time he found a piece of artwork he admired, he was invigorated. Though Mr. Liu has shown his art internationally, and even exhibited his work at the Oakland Museum of California five years ago, he does not talk much about his accomplishments, preferring to talk about his and his students’ attempts to create amalgamations of Western and Eastern art practices. We marveled over one of his students’ watercolor paintings that included Hello Kitty in the foreground of a classical Chinese landscape composition, drawings that won prizes, and paintings that had gone on to grace the cover of community directories.

In the OACC hallway, Mr. Liu showed Carmen and I some of his students’ recent work for Thanksgiving. The art, a framed selection of watercolors and drawings, looked like visual pieces of translation, presenting unique syntheses of the techniques Mr. Liu teaches and each student’s previous exposure to drawing. One student’s watercolor of a flock of turkeys used curved and delicate brushstrokes resembling the script of Chinese calligraphy. Instead of looking colored in, gentle strokes and inscribed negative space define the translucent watercolor turkeys.

One of Mr. Liu’s student’s works, on display at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Photo: Sophia Hussain
One of Mr. Liu’s student’s works, on display at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

Mr. Liu emphasizes these details that display how Western and Eastern art cultures bridge through the diversity of his students.

“Particularly being in Oakland with so much diversity, each student with a different background brings with them their previous understanding of art already,” Carmen said. “That kind of fuses with the art he teaches and helps to bridge this Eastern-Western perception or culture of art.”

When Mr. Liu first came to Oakland in 1987, the OACC, where he currently teaches a Chinese drawing and painting classes, did not exist yet, nor did the Pacific Renaissance Center which is a multi-story residential building that houses the Asian branch of the Oakland Public Library, OACC, and many businesses. Though trained in medicine in China, Mr. Liu started teaching Mandarin and Cantonese languages at a school in Oakland where he knew the principal through family. Mr. Liu found that he enjoyed teaching and noticed a lack of opportunities for children to be exposed to Asian and Chinese culture, so when the OACC came into being, he saw a window of opportunity.

“He approached them, showed them his artwork, and he began teaching here,” Carmen said. He actually started out with an exhibit here and it was after that he started teaching here. The exhibit was a lot of art that included his own as well as a lot of his friends which are very well known back in China and it was a lot of landscape artwork, watercolor painting.” 

I was struck by Mr. Liu’s crossover from medicine to art, but he insisted that it wasn’t much of a transition at all. He studied drawing as a child in China, and when he studied medicine, he studied both Western and Eastern practices with a similar synthesizing approach that he also brings into his art pedagogy. He considers medicine an art, too.

“He says that when he teaches students its not really singular subject. Its like multiple subjects, it’s about togetherness,” Carmen said.

Mr. Liu specializes in many Chinese art forms, including stamp making, calligraphy, and papercutting, and combines many of them in his artwork. Not only does Mr. Liu believe in enriching the cultural knowledge for the Chinese American community, he has also strived to blend his art cultural heritage with traditions of western art. For Mr. Liu, the real excitement is in the amalgamation, the creation of something new. He infuses his classical Chinese art with adaptations such as background imagery, color, English text, and cubist painting techniques. Whereas others might put a translation of his calligraphy on an accompanying note, Mr. Liu often places the translation of his calligraphy right into the artwork itself. He also has a penchant for bright color, which he uses to help the viewer feel the mood of the poems.

“He tries to personify that mixture of cultures—and his belief in it—through his artwork,” Carmen said. “In a lot Chinese calligraphy there’s not really a lot of color its just really words, and what he’s saying is that he chooses these colors to try and convey what each of the phrases or sentences try to convey because its just another way to make it more accessible and hopefully help the person viewing it understand it a bit more.”

Mr. Liu's work. Photo: Sophia Hussain.

Mr. Liu’s artwork.

Though Mr. Liu is retired, he continues to teach his Chinese drawing and painting class at the OACC, and is constantly organizing new projects that engage children with Chinese art. During last fall’s Chinatown StreetFest, Mr. Liu worked with children to apply their drawing and calligraphy skills to an artwork. The resulting works will be incorporated into the 'We Dream in Art' mural to be unveiled at the wall outside Oakland Museum of California on Friday, February 28.

Mr. Liu and his artwork.With the Lunar New Year just around the corner, Mr. Liu is putting the finishing touches on a papercutting to commemorate the Year of the Horse. The work in progress, a meticulously cut silhouette of a horse on gold paper, will make a great stencil to share with his students. Perhaps he will also make a new stamp for the Year of the Horse; Mr. Liu is always thinking of opportunities to share cultural knowledge.

Mr. Liu leaves me with a yellow sheet of paper that he has imprinted the word “dragon” on in four different stylized forms of ancient calligraphy that progress beautifully across the page. On the edges of the paper he has pressed his stamps for the Year of the Dragon and his personal signature, the stamp of the artist.

For a teacher who has already made such a mark on his community, Mr. Liu still dreams that art making in Oakland will continue to unite people.

“For Chinatown, he really hopes that the pedagogy of Chinese and Asian culture can really expand,” Carmen said, “but he says that it has to expand in a way where it works together with the surrounding history and surrounding culture so it doesn’t clash or overshadow what’s already here. That’s how it can work in a peaceful way.”

—by Sophia Hussain, OMCA Community Storyteller