For any artist, the most critical strokes upon the canvas are the introductory ones, which shape and define the skeletal structure that the details of refinement are hung upon, often determining the success, strength, or weakness of one's artistic vision.
A writer is no different, except my challenge is to convey in a few simple words why the artwork of Mt. Pleasant based artist Lily (Lihting Li) Kostrzewa is as compelling and confrontational thematically as it is soothing and spiritual visually. Lily's technique is one that employs a vivid use of color delicately mutated into soft expressionistic tapestries of allusion - similar to the sensation one gets when looking at a single leaf hanging upon a tree while all the other leaves around it dissolve into a kaleidoscope of imagery fading into infinity.
Born in Taiwan in 1965, the balance that Lily brings to exploring the cultural contradictions between East & West through her artwork is as ageless as it is contemporary, relying upon Eastern philosophy and especially the notion of how much of life is about bringing opposing forces - strength & weakness, principle versus amorality - into a unified vision that is universal.
With many of her strongest and more groundbreaking works on display currently at The Saginaw Art Museum as part of its Art 4 All Exhibition, which runs through May 20th - after studying art and living 25 years in Taiwan, Lily moved to the United States, earning her MFA degree in Modern painting.
Since the age of nine she dreamed of becoming an artist and one day saw some Cezanne paintings in one of her father's magazines. After copying them with watercolor on Chinese Rice papers, three years later her parents sent her to study art under a Chinese Master. Then at the age of sixteen, she began learning oil painting.
Upon graduating from the National Taiwan Normal University, she moved to the United States and earned her MFA degree from Central Michigan University. With a studio in Mt. Pleasant and a mother of three, in early 1990 Lily was selected among a few pioneer Chinese Artists to study in Paris. It was there that she fully pioneered and developed her techniques, which blend Eastern artistic elements of watercolor, bamboo brushes, and delicate strokes with colorful Western expressionistic renderings of subjects like the Eiffel Tower, painted on canvas with oils.
Lily explains how her interest in developing this style of merging cultural & artistic influences first began with her focused study of Chinese art. “Chinese art is based upon a philosophy of Zen that employs a lot of delicacy and use of watercolor. When I came to America and started studying Pop Art and German Expressionism, it inspired me to work more with color. The longer that I lived in America I gradually felt that my identity was not really Chinese nor was it American, so this led me to question who I am and how can I make my art unique?”
“Every artist asks themselves that question,” smiles Lily, “but now that I've lived in America for 20 years, through the process spending equal time in both Eastern & Western cultures, I've seen the good and bad in both cultures. From there my artistic search focused on how to bridge the two cultures and bring them together so that East & West can merge. I feel that I've been privileged to be in both cultures and learn so much, so I started merging them gradually through my artwork. I like my Chinese roots, but I married an American and my Children are ¼ Irish and ¼ Polish, so my artwork is like my life.”
Since childhood Lily has firmly believed that everybody is an artist in his or her heart. “The first language we learn is art. And then by the time we learn to speak, many people start to lose that ability to create visually. Art classes in Taiwan are very disciplined. For years you learn how to draw and learn Chinese Calligraphy and then landscaping, and it's so very detailed. Every different brush stroke is one year's training.”
When asked at what point she decided to attempt her new merged multi-media style, Lily explains it began through a process of trial & error. “When I first started I would try to do Western themes on Chinese materials such as rice paper, which is very thin, so when I started to put all these collages and crayon and oil paint onto the work, the paper would just break to pieces. So then I switched to canvas. As an artist I had to develop my own vision. I can copy Monet or Van Gogh excellent with oils on canvas, but that isn't me. I started thinking and struggling about what made me unique and then realized that beyond a rich cultural background, I also have a lot of training in western art, so I should focus on merging the styles.”
“A few years back I started experimenting by bringing back the rice paper and combining watercolors with oil on canvas, using glue to layer the rice paper, and play around with it,” she continues. “I started using a bamboo brush on the paper and plying it, to create a feeling of flow. There's a lot of experimentation involved before something feels right and looks right.”
In addition to her showing at The Saginaw Art Museum, Lily currently has showings at Macomb Hospital, another showing in Chicago, and her art is gradually being showcased worldwide. “I'm entering a competition in New York and have a show starting May 15th in the Ukraine, another show in July and August in Greece, and then another in Lansing at the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.”
When asked about the challenges involved with pursuit of her artistic vision, Lily notes the sad reality of contemporary art, as first chronicled in Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word, that “if you don't publish you perish. I try to prioritize and publish on Twitter and facebook and blog, but it all takes time. The challenge is how to make people know that your type of art is out there.”
As for her future focus, Lily says she wants to “build awareness this world is a global village. From products to influences, every day we come in contact with different cultures, so building mutual respect and social awareness of different cultures is the fundamental theme to my work,” she notes.
As her work has gained momentum and notoriety around the globe, has Lily noticed much difference from Eastern & Western society in terms of how they view her art? “Yes,” she responds, “there are vast philosophical differences between Western & Eastern art. With western work color is more imminent and physical, whereas you experience a sensation from viewing it; whereas Eastern or Oriental art is more centered on the philosophy of relaxation and peace - cultivating a sense that tranquility triggers spiritual emotions. Oriental art uses nature to present emotion, whereas with Western art the viewer becomes more a part of the work.”
“Most people in America think I'm provocative, whereas the Chinese and Oriental worlds see my art and it is not something they are used to experiencing, but they respond positively. The Chinese tend to want more subdued and quiet tones, but as an artist I want to challenge their sensibilities and thinking. Everybody interprets are differently.”
When asked what work she is most proud of, Lily points to a piece hanging currently at The Saginaw Art Museum entitled Don't Wait for Tomorrow. It's based upon a popular poem and the thought that we may not have a tomorrow, so it is important to do things today. The color abstracts and makes elements of the figures ambiguous. There may be one figure struggling, but you don't see them unless you look beyond - much like our universe. Many people don't see a lot of stories behind their own roof and I feel in this culture, everybody takes care of their own business. They don't have time or energy for somebody else, or may not want to invade their privacy; but today in Chinese culture, everything is everybody's business. People are so close to one another and live close to one another, so I try to show these different struggles in everyday life. Every figure in this particular work presents a different struggle; but a lot of things in life will not wait until tomorrow.”
With her latest work in progress, Lily is utilizing Chinese methodology to tell the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve and use mythology to talk about how art and Chinese culture evolved. Indeed, her use of light and color creatively displays her western influences of artists like deKooning, Van Gogh, and Gaugin.
“Some of these works take a long time to create,” notes Lily. “One I worked on for 10 years and others I've completed in a week. Many times you start all over and don't like the way a work is going.”
“But the contemporary art world is competitive. You need a strong belief in your self to succeed and then you need to continue to improve your concept and technique and vision that you present to people. People know something unique when they see it and can tell new directions. My philosophy is that life is short and if you have a vision then you don't wait for the next life or retirement to explore it,” she concludes.
“Everybody has different preferences when it comes to artwork, but in today's world you have to be unique. At least this is the approach that I am striving for.”
The work of Lily Lihting Li Kostrezewa, along with other notable artists such as Dennis Adomaitis, Peter Clouse, Gina Dominique, Michael Mosher, James Mullieneaux, and Tom Tomasek are currently on display at the Saginaw Art Museum through May 20th. The museum is located at 1126 N. Michigan Avenue, Saginaw.
To learn more about Lily and her work, visit her website at LilyKostrzewa.com