A brush with greatness
BALTIMORE — In a second-floor classroom of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, seven undergraduates are at their desks, heads bent forward, fists curled around slender paintbrushes.
Mike Page, a senior specializing in video production, frowns slightly as he duplicates the strokes of a Chinese character. Across the room, Sachie Tani, a junior in graphic design, focuses on the curved line of a peacock's neck she is copying from a 16th-century Japanese painting.
In an art world that prizes individual creativity and the exploration of new materials and techniques, this is an unusual art class led by a most unusual person.
An Ho, who was born in China 75 years ago, studied with scholar-artist Pu Ru, cousin to the emperor and regarded as one of the last Chinese artist-scholars. Before his death in 1963, Pu Ru recognized Ms. Ho as his artistic heir, and she has since created a legacy of paintings in the styles of the Tang and Sung dynasties.
For the last 24 years, this petite Chinese woman has seldom strayed from her home in Atlanta. And, in fact, this is the first class she has ever taught.
"The point is not to make the students do traditional Chinese painting," says Ho, speaking through her daughter, Lalani Nan, a Western-trained painter. Indeed, the class is too short to do more than give students a taste of basic techniques.
"I am only showing the students how to control the brush, how to make a line with minimal strokes, and make the lines sing. This," she adds, "helps with watercolor, drawing, even abstract painting."
This emphasis on traditional techniques is rare today, found only in a few specialized institutions such as the New York Academy of Art.
"There is certainly nobody studying with a teacher from a comparable lineage in the West," says Tom Morris, who teaches painting and drawing at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington.
Ho started the session by showing students how to hold the brush: fingers curled like a sheath, the brush wedged between the middle and ring fingers, wrist bent so as to bring the brush almost perpendicular to the page.
For the first week, she had them practice calligraphy strokes because, as Ms. Nan explains, "everything about Chinese painting goes back to calligraphy. If you don't use the brush right, the texture is awkward, and you don't get the effect."
Ho then introduced traditional representations of rocks, branches, flowers, and textures. On small squares of rice paper, she painted classics like the dappled "raindrop" rocks of artist Fan K'uan's 11th-century paintings, and Sung dynasty "fan-style" bursts of pine needles.
This approach might have chafed students accustomed to less rigid courses. But they welcomed it. "I like the structure," says Ryan McJunkin, a general fine-arts major who works mostly in pen and ink. "The strokes of the characters have to be done in a certain order and according to certain proportions," he says. "It's sort of like HTML: If it isn't a certain way, it doesn't work."
Already, Mr. McJunkin has found his own art improving. "I can draw a lot quicker," he says. "I can get a wider line and I can also be much more spontaneous."
For Joon Hee Lee, who is completing an undergraduate degree in interior architecture, learning centuries-old brushstrokes has helped him to think about new ways of making architectural renderings. He only wishes the class had come sooner. For his thesis, he designed residences that married traditional Korean features with contemporary design.
To express this hybridity in his renderings, he used brush and ink, but drawing ruler-straight lines proved a messy proposition. The ink kept slipping under the ruler's edge and leaving a smudge.
Thanks to Ho, Lee now knows to tie two brushes together, placing them head to toe, so that as he presses the blunt end of brush No. 1 against the edge of the ruler, the inked bristles of brush No. 2 draw a clean line.
Traditionally, Chinese students learn from observing and emulating their teacher, but Ho teaches "the way Pu Ru taught me," she says. "He held my hand."
As the students work, she circles the class quietly and pauses by Mr. Page's desk. Her hand reaches out, gently folds over his, and guides it through the movements.
"As far as I can tell," says Page, smiling, "all she knows in English is 'see' and 'good,' and that's all she really needs. When you've done it right, she says, 'Good,' and when you haven't, she takes your hand and says, 'See.' "
Like Page and McJunkin, Christa D'Angelo, a painting major, speaks with excitement of having "gained more control and conviction in my strokes."
She cannot wait to rush home after class to work on her own paintings, abstracts she describes as fractal-inspired and jazzy.
"What is wonderful about Chinese art," says Mr. Morris, "is that a tree can begin with a single leaf that gets repeated into a pattern. It is probably not so far away from [D'Angelo's] fractals. There is probably a deep connection between the two and," he adds with a note of envy, "she has probably learned more than she realizes."