Yu Yan: Painting His Story


Written by: Maria Smith, Ph.D. (Transitions Coordinator/Instructor, English as a Second Language)

English as a Second Language courses at Durham Technical Community College serve adult language learners from all over the world. In our classrooms, students and instructors expand their knowledge and understanding of different cultural practices and viewpoints, often through the personal stories that we share with one another. This past week, Yu Yan, who has attended Chapel Hill classes since August 2016, shared with us his extraordinary story in an unconventional way – through the language of painting.

Artist and professor, Yu Yan, from the city of Lanzhou in northwest China, came to the United States in April 2016 for two reasons. He wished to see that which he had heretofore only seen depicted in books: the “real” American landscape. He also wished to visit American museums where he could absorb the master oil paintings of Western culture that he had studied as a boy and student under the tutelage of his father, a well-known painter in China.

“Exploring the Origin, Enlightening the Heart,” is the early fruit of Yu Yan’s American sojourn. The exhibition, held from February 20 – February 25 at the FedEx Global Education Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, featured 17 of 30 paintings that Yan completed while in residence as a visiting scholar with the UNC Art Department and during his travels throughout the U.S. The title of the exhibition encapsulates both the intellectual and emotional aspects of Yan’s endeavors to “explore the origin of Eastern and Western paintings” and to express “in works of art” what the unique vistas of the American landscape and an “enlightened heart” had inspired.

At an exuberant yet intimate reception on Thursday, February 23, Yan presented his paintings to his fellow Durham Tech ESL classmates and instructors. Despite the challenges of expressing sophisticated concepts and nuanced emotions in English, Yan neither hesitated nor watered down his discussion. He demonstrated a favored brush technique, and explained the philosophical messages of two works of calligraphy. Perhaps most meaningful to us, an international audience, were his personal observations. He shared his wonder, for example, “I never saw the sky this beautiful – it really shook me,” of the extraordinary colors of an October sunset in the Smoky Mountains and of the spectacle of Bryce Canyon in Utah, which inspired the first painting of his collection.

With each painting, Yan led us on journeys near and far, from the bucolic countryside of Chapel Hill to the Great Smoky Mountains, north to Niagara Falls, across country to the American west and Pacific Ocean—and beyond to his homeland along the ancient Silk Road in China. For Yan, it is the journey that truly counts.

“My work is more driven by the process of exploration than by the arrival at a destination,” Yan said.

In April, Yan and his wife, Jie Yu (also a Durham Tech ESL student and visiting scholar in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC), will leave their beloved friends and colleagues in the United States. Yan will return to his work as an Associate Professor of Art at Lanzhou University and Jie will return to work as a photographer and journalist for the Gan Su Daily.

We bid them both a warm farewell and swift return to North Carolina.

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