Ying Li calls painting a salvation.
Li, who will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Hultquist Center, was born in Beijing and grew up during China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
Not long after her father, a scholar, was arrested and sent to a labor camp, teenage Li was sent to work in a remote farm, where she stayed for five and a half years.
Salvation came when she was assigned to making propaganda paintings. Though materials were limited and she could only copy pre-made designs, painting offered a relief from working in the fields. Her actual escape came when she fell and broke her leg, and eventually left the camp for treatment.
With some options finally available, Li enrolled at Anhui Teachers University in Wuhu, China, to formally study painting. She graduated in 1977 and was a teacher at the college when she met her future husband, Michael Gasster.
“That’s a very good story,” she said.
They met at Huangshan, the Yellow Mountain range in eastern China known for its granite peaks and Huangshan pine trees, where Li was painting. Gasster, “the New Yorker with a big nose,” as Li fondly remembers, studied Chinese history and was in the area doing research.
Meeting on top of a mountain was so romantic it would sound like a soap opera if it weren’t reality, Li said.
Getting together would prove to be soap-opera difficult.
“At that time, it was impossible for him to live there,” she said.
They went through complicated processes to first get a marriage license in China, and then to allow Li to emigrate to the United States in 1983.
The move to New York City would prove to be a turning point in Li’s professional life as well. A Willem de Kooning retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art was one of the many catalysts that sparked a change in Li’s work.
“When I saw that show, it just opened a door,” she said. “I just felt it clicked with me.”
De Kooning, who was also an immigrant, created work that appealed to Li as dynamic and original.
“It really gave me permission to experiment, to do what I wanted to do,” she said.
In the years since, Li has maintained an interest in Chinese calligraphy, scrolls and classical paintings, but left behind her training in Chinese socialist realism. Now she paints with oil, mostly blurred landscapes and cityscapes in thick, bright strokes, as well as flowers, figures and still lifes with an abstract spin.
Since her husband passed away in 2012, Li has been splitting her time between Chelsea and Haverford, Pennsylvania, where she is professor of fine arts and department chair at Haverford College.
Teaching students, she said, is wonderful.
“It gives me more energy and inspiration,” she said. “I have to paint a lot to be able to teach the students. Always, I feel, if I didn’t paint, I’d have nothing to say in the classroom.”
She also travels, and loves to take her paints and easel wherever she goes.
She’s painted in Ireland, Switzerland and Spain. In the U.S., she likes rugged places like Alaska and Colorado, and places with water – waterfalls in Vermont, Cranberry Island in Maine and Chautauqua Lake.
When visiting Chautauqua, her favorite thing to paint is the Chautauqua Belle. She estimates that she first came to teach at the School of Art nine years ago. While here this summer, she plans to set up her easel in Mayville and see “what comes out.”
Painting abstractly does provoke questions. Once, while painting in Mayville, a family was having a picnic nearby. Some young girls came over and asked what she was painting, but when she told them she was painting the ferry, they were only more perplexed.
“They couldn’t really see it in the painting,” Li said. “Then their father, in the background, said, ‘Oh, she’s not a professional.’ ”
Li can’t help but laugh when she tells this punchline.
“They thought I shouldn’t be taken seriously,” she said. “That was a great story. It will really tell you how people see differently from the same image.”
Of course, she also paints while in the city of New York.
“I am a city girl,” she said.
Lately she’s been working on a series of paintings, looking out the window of her studio in Chelsea and observing the changes as the area is built up.
“I feel most at home in New York,” Li said. “Every day I can see something new out there.”