Art display at a medical convention, Maui Prince Hotel, Maui, Hawaii.
It all began when I entered this world and found out I was deeply compelled to do art. Somehow at three years of age I began scribbling and drawing, testing to see if what I saw in my mind’s eye could manifest on paper. I always relied more on my imagination and visualization than the external physical world. The outer reality served as an initial photographic take and then was used as a reference.
Growing up in a Chinese household, I was often admonished to be practical, to abandon this pursuit and avoid becoming a starving artist. But I was unstoppable. I simply couldn’t help doodling along the blank margins of every schoolbook I had, or even on nice clean desks. It was as if there was a force beyond my control that governed me. The price I paid was to hurriedly erase everything I did before the end of the year when books were returned or before the bell rang at the end of class and the teacher noticed anything on my desk. Once during class, I secretly completed a math homework ahead of time during class so I could spend the rest of the time drawing, only to be discovered by the teacher who ripped up my homework in front of everyone.
It was perplexing to me that there was so much opposition associated with being artistic unless I achieved the status of famous masters like Michelangelo and Picasso.
Drawing was magical to me. It was about creating a different world that formed by the guidance of my hand before my very eyes. Something beyond me akin to destiny or fate was always prompting me.
In high school I took all the art classes I could. Miss Whilhelm in ninth grade was ever encouraging and creative. Mrs Goold’s own watercolors of nature looked ethereal and impossible. Under her guidance, I took Art Studio which allowed me to choose my medium (pencil, pastel, and charcoal) and subject matter. With her encouragement and letter of reference, I applied to Parsons School of Design in New York City and got in, attending for a year only, having no funds to continue. Aside from the culture shock I experienced, I found the foundation year with its emphasis on design and composition exciting and enriching.
After art school, I didn’t paint for at least a decade. Education and work took up that decade. I remember bursting into tears and sobbing one day upon seeing someone carry a black art portfolio under his arm. It felt like something that meant everything to me that I couldn’t have.
Then at age 32, the momentum began. I was going to take my artistic bent seriously and pursue it. I taught myself watercolors because it was the easiest type of paint to clean up and transport as well as the safest to use indoors. I lived in a small efficiency studio in San Francisco after all. But it also presented a welcome challenge for me since being inspired by my high school art teacher and watercolorist, Mrs Goold. Because I had a regular full-time job, I was relegated to painting on the weekends, and that is if I had any free time or artistic inspiration. Weekends were usually occupied by grocery shopping, doing laundry, jogging at the beach, or going out with friends. Thus it amounted to producing only a single painting once a month. Progress was too slow.
Things took a turn on a trip to Maui, Hawaii, with my high school friend Tanya. She noticed I was taking all sorts of photos. “What are you going to do with all these photos?” She asked.
“Paint them!” I said.
“Why don’t you just move here, then?”
Well, that was an idea. And sure enough, I went for it. Any discouragement from the past that became voices in my head this time emboldened me and almost dared me. I told my mother over the phone when she asked me if I wanted to reconsider quitting a good job and doing art, “I’d rather die in a ditch than die without trying.”
Quite an extreme statement from me, but it was literally now or never. This time, nobody was going to stop me, not even myself, and not even a steady paycheck!
Once I moved to Maui, I was surprised and delighted to find out that instead of being discouraged, I was encouraged by everyone I encountered who found out I was doing art. When my father visited me and unfortunately fell ill, the doctor who tended him right away bought a few paintings. It happened again when my sister visited a year later. We met a Hawaiian-Filipino man on the beach, and he invited us to his barbecue party. There, as soon as one of his guests discovered I was an artist, asked to see my work. I had one watercolor in my car, and after showing it to him, he bought it.
This positive reception after moving to Maui helped my art to flourish. My decision to pursue art was an overdue investment of time, money, and energy, and it was starting to pay off. Sure at times I worry I would sell nothing and wonder if I did the right thing. But throughout the ups and downs, I would always figured out a way.
Perhaps this can inspire a reader or two who has longed to fulfill his or her dreams. The moral of the story is, if you want to, see if you can, and if you can, you know you must. There will be people along the way to help make it happen, and these people are the ones I am forever grateful for. They were friends, gallery owners, sales reps, print companies, customers, other artists, and family members. They were each a crucial part of this journey. Indeed, I could not have done it without any of them.
Some of the most heartwarming and heartfelt experiences of my life have been as an artist. The woman who wept when she saw the hula dancer painting, and her father who bought it for her. Another woman battling cancer who was moved to tears when she bought my butterfly painting. The parents who bought a turtle print for their daughter who passed away from cancer, whose favorite animal was the turtle. The man whose bond with his yellow labrador was so special that the dog would make its presence known to him decades after its passing. I did a portrait of his dog for him. Those were times when there were tears of joy, gratitude, or the occasional sadness.
The connections I made with people made doing art all the more meaningful. Painting is an isolating task, and the interaction and feedback from people completed the circle in a most fulfilling way.
Being esoterically-inclined, I would often strike up interesting conversations. At one craft show, a woman sitting nearby was selling her daughter’s jewelry. She actually lived on the island and told me she saw an elf in her backyard that was surrounded by a forest. Just to make sure, I asked if she was taking drugs at the time.
“What was he wearing?”
“Did he have pointy ears?”
“Yes, and I have fairies in my garden too.”
“Wow! What do they wear?” I had to know the details!
These nature spirits are not visible to everyone. I never saw any myself but know of others who have. The Brothers Grimm weren’t lying.
Today, I feel I’ve proved to myself like the the little train that could. The pent-up energy of longing and desire fomented since my early years finally exploded into the scene when I was 32 and thankfully got released over the last 20 years. Though there could always be more subjects to paint and more techniques to experiment with, now I no longer get up before dawn and paint in a frenzy for 12 hours straight with occasional breaks.
With all the paintings I’ve done, (only a small portion of which are uploaded in my art store), I am quite content selling their reproductions. It is no longer a matter of feeling compelled, but feeling a sense of completion that I’ve experienced and enjoyed what I set out to do in this lifetime.
Satisfied and satiated, onward to the next journey…