Li Huayi: a new take on an old artform

Li Hauyi painting

I recently returned from a trip with my elder son, 23, to China. The theme of our trip was design. We intended to sketch and photograph our way through three different regions of China, getting a better sense of both classical and contemporary forms of design. To refine the concept of design, I focused mostly on understanding the design element of line. From architecture to fashion, room interiors to tea ceremonies, line plays a big role in defining the Chinese experience. But nowhere is the sense of line clearer than in Chinese calligraphy (which is nothing but line) and painting. And no where on our trip did I find paintings that moved me as much as the work of artist Li Huayi.

Li Huayi, born in 1948, learned painting in the traditional style in Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution, he survived by painting works of propaganda. In 1982, he departed China for San Francisco, working there and delving into the world of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1990’s, however, he returned back both to China and to a focus on traditional Chinese landscape subjects and techniques. Today, he splits his time between studios in San Francisco and Beijing.

To say that Li Huayi’s work is merely a modern rendering of traditional subjects would be to miss what makes them so special. His paintings are currently part of a solo exhibition at the I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. These works, on paper and silk, some shimmering with gold foil, reflect both Eastern and Western influences. But it is less a fusion of cultures and more one of eras that add depth to Li’s paintings. In them, some several meters in width or length, he blends themes going back to the Song dynasty with contemporary sensibilities and even subjects: some of his windswept trees seem more likely to be found in Carmel, California than Huangshan, China. The influence of Abstract Expressionism emerges in the atmospheric perspective of his backgrounds: you’re not quite sure on some what you’re seeing. This rendering of old and new also shows up in the presentation of some of the works with vertical scrolls hanging over longer horizontal pieces but the scenes blending perfectly.

This is contemporary art that surprises because you don’t expect it to be that.

Learn more about Li Huayi and the exhibition at the Suzhou Museum.

Li Huayi paintingLi Huayi painting detail

Li Huayi painting Li Huayi paintingLi Huayi painting Li Huayi painting Li Huayi painting Li Huayi painting detailLi Huayi painting on gold foil

Li Huayi painting

Design is…

Design is…what, exactly?

The question of what design is may not be one that keeps you up at night. But it is one that matters. As we move more and more into what author Daniel Pink refers to in his book, A Whole New Mind as the “Conceptual Age” (which follows the Agricultural, Industrial and Information Ages) we’re all affected by design. And when I say “design” I’m not referring simply to graphic design or aesthetic functions.

To better understand what design is, take a look at the following graphic. It’s from Warren Berger’s excellent (but quirkily titled – I can never remember it when trying to tell others) book on the subject, CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People.

Design is from CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People

As the above definitions show, design:

  • is hard to nail down,
  • applies to problem solving and planning, not just art-related work,
  • is something that all of us can do.

Let me comment on just three of my favorite definitions and look at how these apply to travel.

Design is “The art of making something better, beautifully.

Joe Duffy’s definition contains two key components: better and beautiful. Great design improves the function or use of something. But it can also improve the overall experience. With travel, we can “design” our trips by making decisions to choose wise risk over playing it safe, to stay present when everything inside us wants to shut down due to too much newness or to seek out what is beautiful even in places that, on the surface, may not seem that way.

Design is “The introduction of intention into human affairs.”

Michael Glaser’s definition reminds us that our best experiences – even the ones that seem accidental – usually involve some form of intentionality. For example, once when traveling on my own in Switzerland, I met a young man on a train who ended up inviting me to stay with his family for several days in the Interlaken region. I could never have planned on meeting him but I was intentional about being open to connecting with everyone I met on that train. And because of that mindset, that led to a conversation that led to an invitation that led to an amazing weekend with a local family.

Design is “Hope made visible.”

Brian Collins’ definition captures well the aspirational nature of good design. Great designers don’t focus only on function or even aesthetics. They seek to make the world better, one product, service or experience at a time. Our travel can do the same when we focus our trips on what we can do for, and bring to, others. “Hope made visible,” however, isn’t limited to just what we do on a trip or even to design.

It’s a great definition for travel itself.