I am an artist and I’ve been working...
Successful writers capture mental imagery with words to tell their story. The reader may be transported into a world or character that inhabits familiar elements or references. The writer’s tools of structure, analogy and symbolism are employed subtly but with deliberate intention to invite the reader on a journey of discovery.
While re-reading the Pulitzer Prize winning trilogy “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck recently, I found myself drawn into the multi-generational saga of Wang Lung, a Chinese farmer who strives for success while retaining his cultural ethos. Using vivid characters and turbulent circumstances, the novel inhabits an underlying philosophy of respect for nature and strong work ethic by contrasting and associating alienation from the land with decadence and corruption. The story and its symbolism transcend the era in which it depicts.
When an artist accomplishes a similar grand feat — successfully embedding symbolism into two a dimensional composition, the results can be astounding and unexpected. The contemplative process behind the art is revealed in subtle ways that may entice the viewer on a visual odyssey.
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Recently an artistic novice showed up in Cambria to participate in a community art fair. Her skillful renderings of oil on canvas commanded investigation, so I asked her to share her story.
Cathy Killion’s background is the stuff of novels, full of intrigue, determination and success. Her great grandfather came from China to California during the “Gold Rush” era of the mid 1800s. He was a trained herbalist, traditional Chinese doctor who primarily treated laborers in goldmine camps. Her mother came from Hong Kong to California in the 1920s at age 7 during the dangerous time of immigration exclusion only to be detained at Angel Island with her mother and grandmother.
Colorful family records indicate that Killion’s great grandmother’s husband “Big Jim” was an infamous, “Ce n’est pas une feuille” oil on canvas wealthy Chinese man who organized gambling systems at Chinese camps and eventually opened it up to Caucasians as well. He later invested his wealth into “legitimate” businesses, and took additional wives. He fled back to China after the mysterious death of a business competitor with his “white wife” in tow. When he re-settled in Hong Kong family lore has it that he married his first “Chinese wife,” Killion’s great grandmother. The rest of the story remains modern history.
Cathy is a third-generation U.S.-born California native Chinese woman living in Long Beach, with plans to relocate to Cambria. She is the only daughter among four brothers. She was encouraged to enter the sciences from an early age but there was always artistic activity at home. Her father, a chiropractor, inherited skills from his herbalist grandfather. She recalls seeing her father distill herbs into a resin form, then sculpting them into Chinese characters that represented healing.
Traditional Chinese culture places an egalitarian value on art as a respected component of education. In Killion’s family, this was honored in a modern way. In addition to her father’s unusual application, her mother knitted, painted and enjoyed ceramics. As a young woman with a PhD from Washington University, Killion pursued a career in immunology and gene therapy, eventually becoming an accomplished consultant in her field, but she did not discover a love for painting until six years ago.
Killion found a teacher who patiently provided instruction on the techniques used by old masters. It became an entertaining surprise to find many atypical artists in her class, many of who used their burgeoning skills to create tattoos. As she moves toward retirement, Killion continues to absorb her instructions and share her techniques with at-risk children. In her paintings, she exercises her instincts while maintaining cultural references in compositions.
In “Virtue Ascending,” a bucolic scene featuring a centrally placed lotus blossom, the composition and elements are subtle yet intentional while executed with a delicate and masterful touch. The shading and details on the central bloom are fresh and gentle, set amid the contrasting receding landscape. The lotus symbolizes charity, virtue and purity. The white egret in the background represents a path moving forward. Placing them both together suggests that one’s path will be virtuous.
“Ce n’est pas une feuille” is a diminutive and deceptively simple composition that challenges perception. The single leaf placed among water marks leads the viewer to notice a bee that is positioned to the upper right. The veins and shadows are rendered with precision. One’s eye is compelled to enter the piece and travel a clockwise direction to rest on the shadow at center.
Even the less successful “Still Life” shows potential in the choices made, rendering the objects as arranged with precise control of light and shadow.
Killion has more than a colorful family story. Her instincts are new, her techniques evolving and complicated, and if she continues to include cultural references and symbolism in her works, her story will come vividly to life.
Until Feb. 27
Gallery at Marina Square
601 Embarcadero Suite 10
Morro Bay, CA 93442
Photography by Michael Castaneda, watercolor by Sheril Viau
Until March 3
Cambria Center for the Arts
1350 Main Street
Cambria, CA 93428
Contemporary assemblages of glass by Claudia Ariss and stylized renderings of succulents by Mary McCrea
Until March 17
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
1010 Broad St., San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
“The Empathy of Patience: Michael F. Rohde Tapestries”
Until March 31
Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History
20 State Park Road, Morro Bay, CA 93442
San Luis Outdoor Painters for the Environment
“Flowing Estuary to Living Sea”