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Re-examining Her Roots: Ohio Artist Leah Wong Explains How Inspiration Can Come From Anywhere

Re-examining Her Roots: Ohio Artist Leah Wong Explains How Inspiration Can Come From Anywhere

In 2003, after a semester of hard work, Leah Wong was anxious to show her fellow Ohio University (OU) art students what she had created. But, when the then-MFA candidate arrived for her critique, she had one problem.

“I was supposed to have a painting, but I didn’t have any painting,” said Wong, who graduated from OU in 2004. “My professor asked, ‘Where’s your work?’ and I said, ‘This is my work.’”

In lieu of the painting her classmates had expected, Wong had brought in something different: a collection of intricate papercuts, large-scale reinventions of the crafts she had made while growing up in China.

“I had all these papercuts, and everyone said, ‘Something there is really nice. You should do something about it,’” Wong said.

Finding her artistic style had been a long journey of trial and error for Wong, who received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in oil painting from the China Academy of Arts. After teaching at a school for fashion design and working at a theatre academy in Shanghai, Wong and her husband had moved to the United States, where she sought training in digital graphic design and technological communications, all while learning English.

By the time the couple had relocated to Columbus a few years later, Wong decided to return to school to explore the world of abstract art, a style that challenged much of what she had been taught as an undergraduate.

“I thought, ‘Well, I want to do something that can help me understand the art world,’” she said. “But first, I had to figure out who I was. Am I Chinese? Am I American? Who am I? Why am I here? I realized that I started following people’s shadows all the time, uncomfortably. Every time I did something, someone already did it.”

Spurred on by her adviser to find her voice through her art, Wong said she began delving into the realistic oil painting styles in which she had majored while in art school.

“It’s like when you’re looking at a cloud. When you’re in a cloud, you don’t see the cloud’s shape. You can only see that when you are far away,” she said. “So, when I was in China, I knew all about Chinese culture, Chinese painting, and Chinese history, but I didn’t care until I was distanced from it.”

Following the success of her critique, Wong continued to merge painting with papercutting. Now, her award-winning work, presented in exhibitions throughout the United States and China, depicts representations of animals, nature, and Chinese characters in an approach that blends aspects of literati painting and abstraction.

In 2017, Wong was selected for the Ohio Arts Council’s (OAC) collaborative residency with the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she spent three months creating art and attending instructional sessions in printmaking and photography. Each year, the OAC sends a writer and visual artist to the FAWC as part of the residency program, which dates back to 1994.

In her final report, Wong explained that the residency “expanded her art-making directions” and will undoubtedly influence future projects. She added that the experience of being in Provincetown had an immediate impact on her work, which can be seen in the 12 mixed media pieces she created during the summer.

“When I first arrived in Provincetown, the unique sunlight and landscape struck my spirit immediately. I was impressed by the color and lines that touched the sky and ocean,” she wrote. “The light changed my way of using color and brush marks. During my residency at FAWC, my views of my new environment came to reflect a spatial contact with color, ink drawing, and cut-paper.”

A selection of Wong’s FAWC work was featured in Columbus’ Sherrie Gallerie in October and November 2017. Wong was one of the first artists to join the Sherrie Gallerie in 2004, gallery owner Sherrie Riley Hawk said.

“Leah is a serious, contemporary artist with a message in her work. I admire the deliberate and thoughtful execution to every detail,” Hawk said. “She is a great fit for the gallery. She has found her unique voice—recalling her heritage in Chinese papercutting with a contemporary vision of the world.”

Wong’s papercuts illustrate environments as scenes reflected on the surface of still water. Elements of light and shadow give depth to the vertical and flat aspects of traditional Chinese landscapes while lines, color, and white space reveal a new perspective from top to bottom. Into each piece, Wong infuses her name cut in flowing cursive script, not as a signature, she said, but rather to record her presence in the world she has created on paper.

“I am part of the landscape, and you are, too,” Wong said. “As an artist, I don’t believe art can change people, but I believe art can influence people’s thinking and provide an alternative view. Maybe I am old enough to understand that creativity does not come from nowhere. It has to come from something very common, very normal things that you just ignore. Then, someone can see it and make something out of it.”

To learn more about opportunities available for individual artists through the Ohio Arts Council, visit oac.ohio.gov/Artists2.

View more of Wong’s work at leahwong.com  and sherriegallerie.com/leah-wong.

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Photo credit: Photos courtesy of Leah Wong



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