©Evan Nichols, 2014

©Evan Nichols, 2014


As I stroll along during this Chinese contemporary art exhibition at the Sun Yat- sen Memorial Hall in Chinatown, San Francisco, I reflect upon how I have studied Chinese ink painting and calligraphy in art history classes since 1971. Yet sadly, when I view paintings and calligraphy, I am like the India story of a partially-sighted man who sees one part of the elephant, a leg or a trunk, and thinks the elephant must look like a tree or a rope. For example, I admire a peony painting by an art teacher for his designer leaves in subtle colors; his twisting and turning sense of depth and space; his calligraphy seems to sing. Alas, however, I cannot read the thoughts of the artist in the calligraphy. We, non-fluent Chinese speakers, are shut out from the harmony of words and poem- – unless a translation is offered. I do recognize some characters from university classes. I can see strength in his flowing brush writing.

It has taken me 45 years to control the brush and ink on rice paper. I do reflect on what I know from studies: flowers are part of the iconography of five natural “pure” things, as spoken about by Ancients, which are water, rock, bamboo, pine, and plum blossom. When an artist finds a way to paint them together in a harmoniously, viewers may feel cleansed by a sense of refinement. We are refreshed.

Here in this exhibition, I view many famous elements of Chinese brush: bamboo, landscape, rock, birds, and flowers. Chinese Americans and others here are reading the calligraphy, pointing at certain characters, and discussing what that artist may have meant among themselves.  They are well-educated, I assume, so the viewers appear to have a deep connection with symbols, literary references to artists of the past, and the emotions of the painters. They chat animatedly.

Since I do not have the advantage of being fully literate, I know I am missing some of the connections that others read. Are they delighting about a reference to a poem by Wang Wei (702-XXX)? I wonder.   I have studied books on Chinese poetry in translation; attended the Asian Art Museum where they do give translations, I try to imagine some emotions conveyed through calligraphy on the paintings.

One theme here are the twelve zodiac animals: rat, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, hen, dog, boar, and bull. A large eagle painting dominates the back wall, reminding me that I painted an eagle after divorcing. That effort of making a painted eagle seemed to restore some of my personal power.

Each artist on exhibition wears a red, white, and blue ribbon with his name in calligraphy. There is a large banner written in firm-handed calligraphy, usually done by a senior member, whose handwriting is held in highest esteem. Handwriting is believed to be a display of high moral character. They cut the red ribbon. I take a photo.

One artist, the President of the Literary Association, is the artist who painted an exquisite Chinese lady in a wrapped gown while seated in a pavilion. “Your work is traditional gong bi (refined, detailed work),“ I tell him in Mandarin, as I try to pay him a compliment. “Very few people know how to do this kind of work anymore.” The artist nods. Who is the figure he painted? Is it a Chou Dynasty maiden, who leapt to her death rather than submit herself to the Emperor who had kidnapped her and imprisoned her beloved husband? Maybe. Maybe not.

When I get home to my studio, I read a Chinese poem:


Long Road

Wild goose at edge of Heaven drops!

Turns its head!

On road south of river, where wind blows rain,

Flying aslant in dreary autumn it crosses

pool by dyke.

Dead lotus blossoms; faded leaves;

plumed rushes all yellow.


I too write poetry to accompany some of my own paintings, but I dare not place my calligraphy onto my own paintings. At that exhibit, I felt like both an insider and an outsider because I am knowledgeable about Chinese painting and culture, but I am like many Westerners who major in Chinese studies and remain at the beginner-intermediate levels in Mandarin and the written language.

“Forgetting to eat, to sleep, an artist may write with his brush, as he studies the masters before him with a tear in his eyes,” said China’s most famous poet, Tu Fu. Now I am sad that I could not read or write Chinese better at the exhibition. Imagery in the writing is lost to me. One landscape could have said:


A cold rain blurs the edges of the river;

Night enters Wu.

In the level of brightness of dawn

I saw my friend start alone for Ch’u Mountain.

He gave me this message for his friends and relations at Lo Yang,

My heart is a piece of ice in a jade cup.


I linger as I read translations of Chinese poetry. Here is another touching poem that could have been on a painting of the distant past:


Fishermen draw their nets

From great pool of T’an river.

They have hired a boat

and come here to fish by reflected light

Of sunken sun.


I reflect on a chat I had with one of the contemporary artists at the show. He saw one of my paintings in my digital camera: “Your lines are not strong enough. More strength!” Then he talked so fast I lost my way in his forest of Mandarin.

“My Mother passed,” was my excuse.

“Concentrate,” he says.   He showed me how to write and pronounce the word. “Don’t worry about everything out there!” He waved his arms when I explained I can’t paint well because I am upset.

“Concentrate!” he commands. “Stronger lines!”

Although I missed out on reading the characters of that set of exhibition paintings, I know that the indefinable in art and the untranslatable is universal. I did commune with each artist, as I felt their “ chi” or “ inner vitality” and energy , as they conveyed the spirit of nature through harmonious works.   I did feel camaraderie.

I suppose I am an insider in some ways after all.


©Barbara Bornet Stumph, 2014

Barbara Bornet Stumph is savoring her retirement with her family including seven grandchildren. She plans a trip to Hang Zhou Chinese Art Academy in the Fall to further her life long studies in Mandarin and Chinese brush painting.







7 Responses to “Not Completely Lost in a Chinese Art Exhibition by Barbara Bornet Stumph”

  1. Caroline Sanchez Says:

    Barbara as usual you have a sense of tranquility in your writing. I like the way you integrate poetry in your writing. Are you planning to submit it?

  2. Kit King Says:

    Lovely introspective piece and reflections on Chinese Art. Of course, I think your lines are strong enough, as I enjoy your work.

  3. Holly Sauer Says:

    Barbara, your thoughtfulness and and the beauty you bring to your writing and painting touch me. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Barbara Bornet Stumph Says:

    Thank you so very much. Your support means so much. Writers often sit alone at their desks for many years…so feedback is special. American Association of University Writers’ Workshop in Danville Chapter has talented women with whom I share my drafts before you see them here. Barbara

  5. You are welcome to visit the Yahoo Group that I moderate to see more works by artists of Chinese ink play.

  6. The name of our site is ChineseBrushPainting…Yahoo Group

  7. Jose Says:

    Hello teacher! Lol my name is Jose aceves and I was your ESL student in pittsburg high school in ’98. I am glad you are enjoying your retirement.

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