Wanying Liang

Art inspired by emotions and nature


Photos: Rick Pushinsky & Chengou Yu

What are the core elements of your work?

I use a lot of what people consider as ‘decorative’ flora and fauna in my work. For me, it is not only the way I mimic nature through the repetition of these images, but I find it represents my thoughts and emotions as well: love, hate, confusion, sadness, fear. All of these feelings I accumulate in my mind and can become a millstone around my neck. Making clay is how I digest and process these emotions.

Our emotions are alive and can grow quickly, even faster than we can control. Sometimes, our strong feelings about certain things hibernate, and all of a sudden, they wake up. I take these feelings as babies: they cry, go to bed, wake up, and cry again. Alternatively, these feelings are like plants: they grow quickly in warm seasons and stop developing in cold winter. It is not easy to deal with these impenetrable emotions.

When I am working with clay, I can feel relief from the burden of all of these heavy emotions. The emotions that I cannot understand become decorations and the details in my work. Making these endless decorative details is how I deal with my feelings and how I communicate with others about my unsolved confusions. The more complicated emotions I have, the more decorative details I will create.

Besides, I want to create tension between the external visual beauty and internal anxiety. I often feel a little unsafe when I am in a room full of ornaments and I do not know what triggers those unpleasant feelings; therefore, I decided to play with that in my work. Our eyes love decoration for its visual pleasure, but too much decoration creates anxiety too. Thus, my repetitive decorative details help to create this tension in my work.

Are there any other art forms that you would like to explore?

I am a person who dreams a lot in sleep. Some of the dreams are very fancy, unforgettable, and mysterious. They are the nourishment of my art. One of the most intriguing parts of my dreams is a unique atmosphere. I think installation art might be an excellent way to represent the indescribable ambiances in my dreams, which could change the mood of the exhibition space. Therefore, the installation might be the art form that I want to keep exploring besides ceramics.

Actually, I tried an installation art format for my thesis show at Alfred University. In that show, I used a lot of paper strips hanging from the ceiling to create a space with a sense of ritual. That was an incredible experience and truly opened my mind. I would like to try different ways to create show space in the future. I believe that installation art will add more strength and depth of understandings to my ceramic pieces.

What does heritage mean to you?

Heritage is an interesting word to me. I am a Chinese artist working with ceramic art. Since China has a long and significant history of ceramics, it seems unquestionable that I should inherit Chinese traditional culture, especially Chinese ceramic traditions.

However, when I moved to the U.S., I gradually changed my mind on this. At the very beginning, I could strongly feel my unique background and identity as a Chinese in the U.S. I am different, but what really makes me different? I realize it is not my face, but my personal experiences. I started to look back on what has built me as a person, and I realized that Chinese culture was only part of the influences. What really matters is everything I have experienced and learned in this world over the years: it’s the western fairy tales I read in my childhood; it’s the scary folk stories my grandmother told me; it’s the schools I attended; it’s the history I learned from books; it’s the movies I watched; it’s the way my parents treated me; it’s the image I drew when I saw the world on TV; it’s the local news I read online; it’s World War One and the World War Two…the list goes on and on. All of these have built me as a unique human being. Heritage is not only about the eastern culture that raised me, but everything that touched me while growing up.

I was born and raised in Shaan’xi Province in central China, a relatively conservative region. There still remains a lot of traditional folk art and rituals, most of which are connected with myth and superstition. I was close to these fascinating folk cultures from an early age. When I was at home, I observed my family preparing the rituals to celebrate Chinese traditional festivals, and followed the Confucian routine in socializing with our relatives.

On the other hand, I was hugely attracted to western pop culture when I was a teenager. When I was at school, I was taught western history and science, and I shared beloved western music and movies with friends. My life is a mix of totally different cultures and it feels very postmodern. Although western scholars are the ones who created the word “postmodern,” I always believed that nobody lives a more postmodern life than Chinese people in the last decade.

How do you incorporate your family value into your work?

I never thought about my family value in my work until I saw this question. I grew up in an average family in central China, except I am lucky to have a sister to share life with since most people of my generation are the only child in their family. My parents are teachers, but unlike most Chinese parents, my parents do not intend to control my life. Instead, they support me to be myself and to pursue art. My family cares for me and doesn’t mind showing their love for me. I can feel their sympathy and generosity toward others too.

Growing up in this family, I learned how to care for others and be sympathetic. I respect that everyone is unique and has their own value system. I esteem the differences between people and never force others to agree with me. Honestly, I always question myself and my work. I am not perfect, and neither is my work.

Unconsciously I express my unique family values through the work I create. I present the vivid personalities of a human being in my art, instead of an impeccable dead object. I love to leave enough room for the viewers to form their own understandings of my work. It is very enjoyable to see viewers connecting their personal experiences with my art. I wish my work could talk, but not in a persuasive way. My concept is merely the starting point of my work.

Who has influenced you the most?

This is a difficult question to answer. Numerous people have influenced me differently throughout my 31 years in this world. It is tough to say which influence is the most important one. If I had to choose one, my mother’s face comes to mind. I am very close to both of my parents, but maybe because my mother and I are both women, I feel more connected with her emotionally. I never left my mother until I went to college at the age of 17. Even then, I still spent at least two months at home every year during school holidays. In total, we spent the most intimate 20 years together. For me, to understand my mother is a way to appreciate the world.

I have seen my mother struggling with depression, cooking every day in the kitchen, laughing while walking to the vegetable market, or wandering in the park. The way she lives teaches me that we need to give ourselves a little room for pure happiness, even though life is not easy. One should never ignore or look down on simple and regular things in everyday life. Small satisfaction in daily life can rejuvenate us. The things I do every day builds me – even preparing lunch is as important as doing my studio work. Now I focus on how I live my daily life to the fullest rather than what I have made. I believe that is my mother’s influence on me - to be aware of the tiny things in life and be appreciative.