Monkeying Around With a Brush

A toddler's trip to the zoo launched a painting career

LIKE the best of us, monkeys have trouble sitting still. They do things without asking permission, and they always have fun. Even when you see monkeys in paintings or in photographs, they have a lot of energy. You can almost see them squirm.Sixteen-year-old Wang Yani has a special knack for capturing these playful animals on paper. I met this Chinese artist and her father, Wang Shiqiang, this fall in a fancy hotel overlooking the Boston Public Gardens. Yani wore a white floral dress, quite unlike the sweat suits she wears when painting. Yani says she enjoys being with her friends, "but I think by painting I can express my ideas, and so far, I think that painting is more pleasurable than playing with other children." It's not that her friends are boring; she just loves to watch her painted monkeys play. Mr. Wang sees a lot of Yani in her paintings. "When Yani was small, she was quite naughty, but all her paintings, the animals, the figures, were very kind," he says through a translator. "It is related to her character; she has such a kind character." Yani remembers her first contribution to the world of art. When almost 3, she took her father's brushes, mixed some oil paints, and painted on top of a painting her father had just finished. Naturally, he scolded "naughty" Yani, but later he gave her all the materials she needed to make her own paintings. She painted and drew everything she saw: the cat, her father. Then, during a visit to the zoo, she saw monkeys. Yani was thrilled. Look at all the action in "Little Monkeys and Mummy." There is fruit all over the ground, but three little fellows are scrambling up onto Mummy's back to pick fruit in the trees overhead. One blue-faced chap is sitting in the highest point he can find, which happens to be the top of her head. Despite the weight, Mummy is smiling. Probably Yani was inspired by the patience her own mother had when she took Yani and her little brother to market. Yani became famous quickly. First she used to go with her father to art shows. By the time she was 3, her own paintings were shown in galleries in southern China. When she was five years old, she was invited to Beijing, the capital of China, to show some of her work. Since then, her art has been seen around the world, including Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, Britain, and the United States. A painting Yani made when she was 4, "Scratching an Itch for Mother," was later used on a postage stamp. Yani used several brushes of different sizes to paint her monkeys. For the gray furry bodies, she used a short fat brush that fit in her hand like a broomstick. She dipped the brush in black ink, then dipped it in water. You can see how the watery ink spread out when it touched the paper, almost like the way spilled grape juice spreads out on a white tablecloth. Yani's monkeys usually have red faces, which Yani adds with a single dab of red ink. She then takes a thinner brush, full of black ink, to paint the long fingers, dot or circle eyes, the nose, and mouth. Sometimes Yani gives her monkeys blue or green faces just for variety, as in "Welcoming the Year of the Rabbit." This painting shows a Chinese New Year's celebration that takes place in February. In China, each year is given the name of a different animal. While Yani was painting, her family was getting ready to watch the New Year's parade, with firecrackers exploding in the streets and long, dancing dragon puppets carried by about 20 men. Compared with monkeys, storks are very solemn. In "Welcoming the Year of the Rabbit," they escort a rabbit to a feast in his honor; the monkey has been entrusted with a basket of fruit. Some artists try to paint every muscle, wrinkle, and hair as perfectly as a photograph, but Yani says she paints from her imagination, and tries to show feelings and movement. You can almost see her monkeys swing, her storks bow and strut, and her sparrows flit from branch to branch or fly quickly to the ground when they see a feast of seeds. Yani says she prefers this way of painting. Even her pet monkey, Lida, isn't as exciting and energetic as the monkeys she sees in her mind. As Yani has grown up, she has painted fewer and fewer monkeys. She now paints landscapes, like the tall limestone mountains around her hometown, which look like huge gray loaves of bread standing on end. For young artists who may be unsure of their own abilities, she says, "In China, there is an old saying: 'You can paint endlessly, but there are no bad paintings. It can be scary to do something that friends aren't doing, but Yani has the following advice: "Don't be afraid what others will say about you. Just express your own ideas. Enjoy yourself."

Kidspace is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday. You can see more of Wang Yani's art in a book called, 'A Young Painter: The life and paintings of Wang Yani - China's extraordinary young artist,' by Zheng Zhensun and Alice Low (Scholastic, Inc.).,

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