Smile Politely

Possessing a fleeting moment with the art of Hua Nian

an abstract painting in blue, red, and pink
New Birth by Hua Nian

Those involved in the Champaign-Urbana art world are likely already familiar with the work of Hua Nian. This summer alone she was the featured Artist of the Corridor at the Urbana Free Library, where she exhibited her collection Celebrating Motherhood and Childhood. Last month, her exhibit Sketching C-U Life: Pen and Ink Drawings was on display at The Champaign County History Museum, which I featured in my Five things in arts this month. She is also the owner of Hua Nian Art Studio in Urbana, where she teaches her popular art classes for kids and runs summer art camps.

Nian came to the United States from China 30 years ago to study art education in graduate school. She has now lived in Urbana for more than 22 years, where in addition to her studio, she spends her time painting and tending her garden.

I had already contacted Nian for this interview when I realized that two of the large paintings at my work were created by her. I recently corresponded with her to learn more about how her paintings ended up in the U of I Library, her process for creating new pieces, and how motherhood has impacted her art. Here’s what she had to say:

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Hua Nian paints a large canvas on the floor of her studio. She is surrounded by canvases on all sides.
Hua Nian

SP: Can you talk about the progression of your art making? How would you characterize your practice?

Nian: I work with three different media — acrylic painting, pen and ink drawing, and paper-tearing artwork. Each of these requires a different approach; I strive to make them look free and spontaneous.

SP: When you are starting a new piece or a new project, can you walk us through your process? Do you have a clear idea of how you want it to turn out before you begin; is there a lot of experimentation or improvising along the way?

Nian: Except for pen and ink drawings, for which I often depend on life or photo references, I usually don’t worry about how an artwork turns out to be. For abstract paintings, the white surface of the canvas is very intimidating, so I like to quickly cover it up with colors and marks, and then try to develop something from there. As strange as it might sound, I like to improvise my way out with lots of thinking, and it takes me a long time to finish a painting. For paper-tearing artwork, I tear the magazine paper into random shapes and arrange and re-arrange them until the figures they form make me smile.

SP: Tell me about the pieces you had on display at Boneyard this year. How was the experience for you? Have you participated at Boneyard in the past?

Nian: I have been participating in the Boneyard Arts Festival for many years, I love it since it makes people aware of what I do and has brought many people to my studio to view and purchase my artwork. I displayed paintings and drawings this year, many of them brand new to visitors since I just finished them during the winter, and I haven’t had chance to update them online yet.

abstract painting in black, greys, blues, and oranges
Serenity Stanton Orengo

SP: I work at the International & Area Studies Library at the university, and I’ve always admired the art. The day after I sent your interview request, I noticed your name on two of the pieces — I can’t believe I hadn’t made that connection before! Can you talk about those pieces, and how they ended up at the library? 

Nian: How nice that you have connected the dots! These two large paintings have been on loan to the library since January 2012. Steve Witt, the then-head of the International & Area Studies Library, happened to be the dad of one of my students. He asked if I would like to display two of my paintings on the bare walls. They have been there ever since.

Three ink drawings by Hua Nian; on the left is a chihuahua, in the middle is a female cellist; on the right is a band director.
Hua Nian (l-r): Dog 222, Cello 222, On the Field 119

SP: You recently had an exhibition at the Champaign County Historical Museum of pen and ink drawings. Can you talk a little bit about that — what  kinds of pieces were on display?

Nian: The 31 drawings on display were selected from the 15 sketchpads that I have done for 22 years since moving to Urbana. Most of them are on-site drawings from local farmer’s markets, parks, streets; they also include various stage performances at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, as well as sketches from local dance studios. The most recent one is a commissioned piece for CU Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty” production. 

SP: I read on your website that you began drawing after your son was born out of a deep desire to “ease the anxiety of possessing the fleeting moment.” I thought that was a really beautiful sentiment, and one I could relate to (even though I can’t draw myself!). Is that still something that motivates you, or that you think about as you are creating new pieces? 

Nian: I really wanted to slow down my baby son’s growing speed and be able to enjoy his present moments, but I quickly realized that taking tons of photos didn’t help at all, so I switched from the camera to a pencil instead — I could use my hand, my eyes, and my mind to trace him and that helped to burn the moments in my heart. The anxiety of possessing the fleeting moment has never become so urgent since my son and daughter graduated from college one after another. Experiencing how ephemeral life is has been a dark place in my mind (this feeling is definitely not unique to myself). It has sent me to my basement studio every night to paint — I am searching for a nice place where the meaning of life meets the fleeting moment. I hope my ongoing series Where the Wild Things Glow could bring an optimistic feeling to this sentiment.  

A collage of three abstract floral paintings. The painting on the left is mostly turquoise, blue, and purple; the two on the right are mostly yellow and black.
Hua Nian (l): Ice Area; (r-top): Declaring Independence; (r-bottom): Secret Playground

 SP: What are you currently working on?

Nian: I have been working on Where the Wild Things Glow since 2008 after a trip to Bali, now I am working on Part Four. The theme hasn’t changed but the look of the paintings has been slowly evolving – I would love to see where it leads me. People interested can visit my website to view the first 3 parts.

 SP: What media do you prefer to work with? Is there a medium that you find frustrating?

Nian: I prefer to work with acrylic simply because of its versatility. Every medium is frustrating at the beginning. What I have always struggled with the most, right up until now, is the balance between color, composition, and the expressions of how I feel.

SP: What have been the most rewarding and most challenging projects you’ve completed to date?

Nian: The most challenging project was throwing a bowl in a pottery class back in my school years. The bowl is still not to be found to these days.

The most rewarding project was my early series of printmaking, titled Masks. I made them when I was a new student in the US 30 years ago. I had been experiencing cultural shock in every aspect of life since arriving and didn’t know how to express what I felt in English, or even in Chinese. This project helped me to realize the expressive power of making art, and that life experience could be a gold mine of inspiration. It was the diving board of my artist journey. 

Hua Nian stands surrounded by paintings while teaching a class. She has dark hair pulled back, a turquoise long sleeve shirt and grey cardigan. She is looking and smiling at the camera
Hua Nian

SP: If someone wants to check out your work for the first time, do you have something in particular you recommend?

Nian: I would like to recommend them to visit my website first, so they can get a general idea on what I do. They are welcome to make a studio visit if they would like to see certain pieces in person.

SP: Is there any place around C-U where people can check out your art?

Nian: Gilbert Gallery in downtown Urbana has some of my paintings; people can also find me once a year at the CU Craft League, CU Art Fair in Savoy; and my open studio during the Boneyard Art Festival. Unfortunately, I am not very active on social media, but people can view most of my artwork on my website.

SP: What’s next for you? 

Nian: Keep painting and paint better; keep teaching and teach better.

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