Hsi-Mei Yates breathes new life into a 2000-year-old art form
“It’s almost died out,” Hsi-Mei Yates says of her art.
Hsi-Mei creates watercolor paintings with a technique called Chinese brush painting. It is one of the oldest art traditions still in practice, with its origin traced to the Zhou dynasty.
The technique is closely related to Chinese calligraphy, and Hsi-Mei fears that as China removes compulsory calligraphy classes from its school curriculums in favor of typing, brush painting could die out. “All these young kids, they don’t know how to hold a brush,” she says.
She takes joy in creating and teaching this ancient style in Fredericksburg. “I’m teaching this younger generation, and I kind of give them these ideas. That is what I’m enjoying.”
Growing up in Taipei, Taiwan, Hsi-Mei was drawn to art from a very young age; she estimates that she began creating in the first or second grade. “My whole family, nobody drew,” she says, “but I’d just see something, I’d just pick it up and I’d have to draw.”
Her teachers noted her talent during calligraphy classes in elementary school, and asked her to participate in local competitions. But Hsi-Mei didn’t see art as a viable career path as her family couldn’t afford to send her to art school. After graduating high school, she worked at a small pottery store before being hired at the China Art Company. Generally, she says, art school was a prerequisite for employment at this company, which specialized in handmade pottery with unique paintings. She achieved the position thanks to her talent and self-taught techniques.
China Art Company provided its employees with daily art classes, so Hsi-Mei was able to round out her education under a number of famous Chinese artists.
After five years of employment, however, Hsi-Mei’s boss was getting older and considering shutting the company down. She moved in with her sister in the United States, and after a few years spent learning English and working at a restaurant, she began building an art career here.
“This is 2000 years of cultural art,” Hsi-Mei stresses. “It’s not many people who are familiar anymore.
“What’s mostly important is [what] we call Four Treasures. A long time ago, if [people] had these four things, they can go anywhere to study.” These treasures, the brush, paper, ink, and inkstone, allowed one to create calligraphy and artwork.
For her brushstroke pieces, Hsi-Mei uses a type of unprocessed paper which is hyper-absorbent of water. This necessitates that the artist use as few brushstrokes as possible and produce their image quickly, before the water dries. This constraint gives rise to some creative techniques, such as layering multiple pigments on a brush.
While any particular brush painting piece may have been created quickly – sometimes in as little as fifteen minutes – Hsi-Mei says hours of study inform each work. “I have to study something fully before I can capture that idea to paint.”
She showed me a commission she was working on as an example. “This was a person who asked me to do their cat. I said, ‘you send me [many pictures] of your cat,’ so I can see how they are behaving, how they move, all these things. Just to look at the picture, I look at a whole bunch.
“I’m not just going to sketch [the cat] and finish. I paint twenty, thirty times,” she explains. “My last piece, I will transfer from all that study [….] So I don’t try to paint something exactly from a picture, because I need to study. To follow a picture and copy exactly – it has no life.”
This is a principle she learned at China Art Company and attributes to classical Chinese art tradition. “In the Chinese way of painting, you’ve got to draw, you copy one time, you copy a second time, and then you’ve got to throw it away. You’ll not look at it. You’ve got to remember how to do the shapes.”
While Hsi-Mei’s work is rooted in the classical tradition, she’s not afraid to create new techniques and produce a style that is uniquely hers. Recently, she has reversed the normal process to use colored ink before adding black ink details, creating pieces with more abstract forms and color variety than her older works.
“Selling art is okay,” Hsi-Mei quips. “Sell or not sell, it’s [okay]. I like to educate the next generation. That’s why I do a lot more teaching.”
She first began teaching her art decades ago at the request of a woman who had seen and admired her technique.
“She softened my heart, said, ‘I have cancer, I need to have somebody teach me!’ So I started teaching her, and she became my best friend.”
Since then, Hsi-Mei has instructed at several colleges, including annually at the University of Mary Washington, and teaches privately in her studio at Libertytown Arts in downtown Fredericksburg.
“I like teaching kids [the best],” she confesses. “They have free minds. And I find I can teach a new generation this almost died-out art.”
Hsi-Mei has a studio at Libertytown where she enjoys meeting visitors and teaching her classes, and a website from which people can view some of her art and contact her.