My Portraits of PoPo (婆婆）
In 2010, I began a series of oral history interviews with my maternal grandmother - 婆婆 (PoPo), as I call her. She was born and raised in pre-Communist China, was not only college educated in China but was actually President of her Student Union. She fled the Communist Revolution through Shanghai to the Hong Kong refugee camps where she raised a newborn (my mother) until she was 2 years old. By that time, PoPo made contact with her sister in Taiwan and made her way there. She was appointed by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, to be the Headmistress of one of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek’s schools. Throughout this time, she found the time and energy to raise 5 daughters. Starting with my mother, each of the daughters immigrated to the United States. Eventually, PoPo joined her daughters in the United States.
Today, she is 97 years old and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has lived the life of a mother, a professional, a revolutionary, a leader, and an educator. I had always envisioned doing a series of portraits that would “collaborate” with the interviews. In 2019, I began painting this series of portraits: “Portraits of PoPo”.
The Meaning of Portraiture
Though I have done singular portraits before, this was the first series of portraits that I have done. It was an overwhelming endeavor to grapple with what these portraits meant to me as a granddaughter, as a painter, as an artist. I have always valued the visual arts as a precious non-verbal expressive outlet without preconceived direction, providing counterbalance to other aspects of my life that are very “verbal” and goal-oriented. I wanted to both preserve the open exploration of mark-making important to me as an artist, but also produce work that honored the incredible life of my grandmother.
From a visual perspective, I have always found her face intriguing. I also thoroughly enjoyed the richness of visual imagery provided by the many photos that I poured through from different aspects of her life - from her middle school years to the present. Landscapes moved from China, to tropical Taiwan to the United States. Fashion moved from professional qipao’s, celebratory qipao’s, to grandmother knits.
From painting to painting, I moved from one visual exploration to the next without much pre-planned direction, in some pieces working to understand the structure of her face, in others to capture her spirit, and others simply to explore color and mark-making within the confines of a representative portrait. I found a great deal of inspiration from Elaine de Kooning’s portraits who held an incredible balance between representing her subjects and just making great paintings.
Phenomenal: Women Celebrating Women, March 10, 2019
I was delighted to join a group show in honor of International Women’s Day 2019 at the Live Worms Gallery in San Francisco. As part of this group show, I was able to show three of the portraits from the series, and, most importantly, my grandmother and family were able to attend and view these portraits for the first time.
In Taiwan, my grandmother was often involved in organizing events around International Women’s Day. She was both delighted by the portraits and the connection back to International Women’s Day. I could not have been happier.