Developing my artistic self

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration 25 Comments

When I was a little kid in grade school, the teachers used to tell my Chinese immigrant parents, “Betty is such an artist!”

Of course, this comment made Mom and Dad very unhappy. What they wanted to hear was: “Betty is such a medical doctor!”

So the idea of pursuing art didn’t surface until recently. It was only two years ago that I got serious about taking weekly painting classes. These explorations on canvas led to long talks with my shrink about self-expression. Now that the paintings are piling up in my house, I’m taking a marketing course for artists. The whole process has been thrilling because I’m recovering another long-lost piece of myself.

But can I really get out of the box? Can I actually find joy in doing something I love — despite my parents’ disapproval? They would’ve pooh-poohed art classes as impractical (and expensive). Besides, the field has a very low success rate (with “success” being defined as the ability to become a multi-millionaire).

You might wonder why my folks’ opinion still count. Hey, just because I’m 54 and they’re deceased doesn’t mean that they’re out of my head. At least, not yet. And now that I’m feeling fulfilled, maybe they don’t have to leave; they just have to behave.  ^_^

But enough about them. Here are some of my recent paintings. The orange on the plate is a 10-inch square canvas. The small ones are six-inch squares.

This spring, I found myself attracted to circles, especially the juicy shapes of round fruit. They also cast such interesting shadows.

I only work in delicious oils. Orange is my favorite color. Greens get to me too. When the paint is applied really thick with a good brush, the experience is totally yum.



Now what about exploring YOUR creativity?

Since painting and writing can be so solitary, I really value having community. I love my Friday all-day painting classes with Karen O’Neil at the Art Students League of New York. She teaches on the gorgeous Vytlacil campus in Rockland, County, N.Y. It’s a lovely 20-minute drive from my house.

I made four videos showing the kind of demos that Karen does during class. I enjoy watching them now on YouTube. They constantly remind me to stop and notice the beauty of simple moments in daily life. By the way, being around Karen has made me a better journalism professor. I’ve become more effective at spotting and developing the unique abilities of each of my students.

The four videos all follow the format of this one. I took a bunch of photos (on my old, junky camera) and turned them into animated shorts. Here’s Karen, painting a flower:

The other videos are:

How to Paint a Glass Object

How to Paint a White Object

How to Paint a Pear

As for the business of being an artist, I am sold on Alyson Stanfield, the genius behind She thinks that the notion of a starving artist is a lot of crap; why shouldn’t creative folks know how to make money and market themselves?

While I meet many painters on her site, Alyson’s advice and tips would work great for writers and anyone else who needs to understand entrepreneurship. But unlike too many business sites, hers is pretty — yeah, that matters to me!

I started by reading her blog every morning. Now I’m taking her month-long, online “Blast Off” class. For the price of $97, I get a new lesson every day that I can learn by either reading a pdf or listening to a podcast. Worksheets and get-yourself-organized activities have been helpful too.  And there’s always a chance to interact with the other students on the private class blog. I’ve gotten insight on practical tools that will keep growing me as an artist.

So, this is my happy blog post for today.

Sometimes, I actually don’t have anything to complain about.   ^_^


Comments 25

  1. I really like this entry Betty. I took an art class in my undergraduate degree and the whole entire process was bliss. I really like the way you painted your fruit and the choice of warm colors you used to highlight the fruit’s chillness. Kudos!

  2. Funny how tiger parents consider anything artistic like taking drugs. A friend of mine’s parents systematically teared everything she was drawing after the age of 10.
    I was condemned to answer “nothing” to the question “what are you doing” when I was drawing, so I think it’s a really good thing that you’re developping your artistic self, and turns out it looks great! Tiger parents want to develop the skills they sometimes don’t have on their kids… my dad wanted to be a biologist, he could not so I had to become one… Which failed… Art works as much as a therapy. Keep on going! I’m waiting for your new paintings!

  3. I forget the exact quote but Dr. Zhivago said something to the effect that “poetry is something you HAVE to do, it is not a career.” I think that applies to the arts in general. We are so grounded in the notion that, unless one makes money at a pursuit, it is not worth doing that we lose sight of the intrinsic worth of just creating. I draw. I write poetry. I write various kinds of sci-fi and fantasy stories. I make no serious effort to get them published because my reward is the entertainment of my friends. I have had a few stories commercially published and, once the initial ego boost subsided, found it to be a less than satisfactory experience. The stories may well have been read by every one of the thousands of people who subscribe to the magazines that carried them but I don’t know it. It was as if they vanished into a black hole, actually. It is a great deal more rewarding to read the stories to a half dozen friends and see their enjoyment. I think the same could be said of drawing and painting except the end product tends to take up a lot more house room. BTW, my fav is the painting of the melon slice – I’d like to take a bite!

  4. Post

    you all are SO creative! sherryn, i had the same experience in college too. i never forgot that one art class that i took — but it never occurred to me to take more. the most i ever did was paint — and re-paint — the rooms in my apartment. is that oppressed or what?

    anna, i didn’t know that you draw. it’s still inside of you. maybe you’ll pull it out again some day soon.

    and toby, love your spirit because that’s what i need to develop — doing something for the sheer joy of it. can’t a passion just be a passion? does it have to be reduced to a product? although for me, getting paid is still a form of validation of my worth. i’m still working through those issues. :-)

  5. Betty, Betty, Betty, you really did it this time. This entry really has me in tears. I’m not sad (well, maybe I am), but I think I am really happy for you. It is great to read that you started your oil painting classes just a few years ago and then to look and see how soothing and warm and detailed these paintings are.

    Like so many things you write, I related to this post in lots of ways. (Sometimes I wish that your posts had some sort of live segment. Maybe a Skype-ish sort of thing where I could see and talk with you or your readers. Oh heck, why don’t I just make time for us to grab dinner this summer?! LOL). As a child, my teachers in elementary school would talk to my mother about my interest in writing and encouraged it. My mother would ignore it or ask them if my fascination with writing was okay or did my writing stories in class or getting creative with the assigned work meant that I was in some kind of trouble. The immigrant in her was focused on turning me into a carbon copy of my relatives all going towards medical professions. Survival and stability were the goals, fulfillment was a fantasy.

    This hurt. Over and over again. By the time I was an adolescent and then a teenager, my mother realized that her dreams for me would not be realized. I had always been the obedient child, but in my own small way, I kept finding ways to assert that I would not go that route. I was just going to keep writing. I did not attend the HS she wanted me to and pursued writing in college. There was a certain pressure to become a ”success” and work in the medical field so that I could show my father’s family (who we were estranged from) that my mother had single-handedly raised a success. I had one parent who was clueless about who I was and another, somewhere, who just didn’t give a damn, anyway. I kept getting fed that I had to show my paternal family that I was ”somebody,” and naturally, a writer wasn’t seen of as that.

    So that’s some background for you. We sort of lived like strangers in the years following. I did not try to understand where she was coming from and neither did she. Of course, we were civil, but that was that. Because I was not a rebellious teen, I don’t think I did anything to drive her crazy (then, anyway, the twenties are another story!) but it was felt in the air that I didn’t do anything to make her proud, either. With my father, he wasn’t present anyway, but the few occasions we would see each other, I would just get asked questions like ”Why don’t you like nursing?” or ”You’re in college? When will you finish?”

    Well, my father passed away without seeing me graduate. My mother attended and that was actually a surprise to me! There were award ceremonies in HS and during community college and I went to them alone. When I explained to my mom what the thesis reading was and she agreed to come, I was so stunned, I almost didn’t believe it. I didn’t know why I invited her anyway (I had stopped doing so) and I didn’t think she would say yes, I was trying to be nice. This year was the first time she heard anything I ever wrote. Nothing I published was ever read by my parents, not even when I suggested or asked.

    Maybe that’s why when my son expressed his love for art, I never let him think that for a second I would not support him. I don’t know much about the art world, but my son has quite an artistic and entrepeneurial spirit. He loves drawing, painting, sculpture, cartooning. And because I love him, I’ve learned to love all those things too. When he told me he wanted an art exhibit at 6, I had a friend help me plan one. And we did another one, the following year. He designed the programs with me, I wrote the bio and he worked on the artwork for months. He even charged admission and created a theme for both shows. I try to learn about the art business as much as the creative side of things, because he is interested in both. As a career, he’s talked about being an art instructor, and the kid and entrepeneur in him says he wants to have shows at galleries to sell art to buy video games. He’s planning his next year’s show over the summer while I try to find him a new instructor nearby. Till then, we’ve got an assortment of books from Barnes and Noble and the public library. His schoolteacher from last year is actually letting him put on a mock exhibit in her classroom tomorrow because he didn’t have a show this spring (we’re saving for summer vacation, so we just decided to throw one next spring before he graduates from elementary). I was touched that he has great teachers at his public school who not only come out to his shows, but ask him about his art constantly and will even give him a platform to encourage and motivate him.

    Obviously, I’ve remained close with my HS teachers or profs like you that I can always talk to about my goals or interests with writing. It has helped a lot. I’m glad that my son has his own cheering section. I plan to be the captain of his team or the loudest cheerleader. I am his biggest fan. And a big fan of yours, too, Betty.

  6. I really related to this post. My parents didn’t have as high as expectations for me as yours did for you, they felt I needed to be a secretary, or a mom. They felt my need to read deep books, poetry, ect. to be striving for the “la de da class.” “You were born poor you will die poor, was their mantra.” When I became a nurse they were surprised. When I took art classes in my thirties they were not very supportive, when I became a poet and performed my poetry in my fourties, I had lost my mind in their opinion, my books on family life wasn’t appreciated at all. Like you, each triumph in my own life, made them more dissappointed in theirs. They are all dead now, and I am back at school persuing a doctorate in naturopathy, they are still in my head, but like you they behave or I send them to the corner. Anyways, enough about me, this was a wonderful post, and You are a wonderful, inspiring woman. Thanks for sharing your life with us.

  7. It seems as if we are all revealing our childhhod traumas and deprivations today. I deeply regret not really having had any. I was burdened with parents were kind and loving and didn’t particularly care what I did as long as I was happy doing it. Had I wanted to be a flagpole sitter or join the circus (which I actually did do for three years) they would have merely smiled bemusedly and said “how interesting. Are you enjoying it?” Now I ask you – how is a person supposed to develop a proper mid-life crisis of self discovery with that sort of background? It is so infair. The nearest they ever came to imposing goals was during my mid-teens when my mother had a mild flirtation with the idea of me joining the diplomatic service like some remote ancestors. Their Edwardian portraits in striped pants and morning coats inspired her to think I would look just smashing in the same sort of garb. She even went so far as to have an engraved printing plate for calling cards made as a gift for my 16th birthday – which does indicate a fairly substantial disconnect on her part from the reality of life as 16 year old. To compound the difficulty – I liked it. You will not be surprised to learn no one else I knew had engraved calling cards. The majesty of those cards caused me to briefly consider the dip serv as a way of life. The elegant, slightly raised lettering in Spencerian Script, the linen finish bristol board, the little silver case one kept them in – ah but that was deluxe a la haute monde! The dream came crashing down when I read someplace that diplomats today only wear morning coats at the Court of St. James and when being presented to the Emperor of Japan. “Oh tempora, Oh mores!” Mother said “well – if all you wear is a dark suit, you might as well be anything – even a trash collector.” Our munincipal trash collectors did not, as a rule, wear dark suits to work but I doubt mother had ever actually looked at them. I wouldn’t be surprised if she thought the trash was spirited away by elves in the middle of the night. She believed in elves. So do I but that is another matter entirely. By “anything,” she more or less meant anything they’d let in the door at Brooks Brothers. I’ve tried my best ot fabricate a childhood trauma out of all this but I think I’ve failed. I feel I’ve let you all down. (back of hand pressed to forehead.)

  8. Betty: of all the personal blogs, yours is the only one I often read, because it’s really personal but not self-congratulatory.

    Regarding parents, they are never out of your bloodstream, but my take is that they can be put in the place where they belong by simply forgiving them. Forgiving them for everything they ever did wrong, thanking them for what they did right, and Shazam! there they are, on the ancestor shelf, where they belong.

    I figure the reason parents did what they did was because it was the best they could do at the time, and we all suffer from that.

    This is not a religious thing. You don’t have to connect it to anything but what it is: Forgiving your parents in your mind. Thank you and goodbye. I’ll always think of you fondly and wish you well. It may take several tries over time, but it can leave you free to live your own life without all the shoulda coulda woulda’s that thoughts of parents usually entail. ingrid

  9. Ahaha, I actually draw a lot! I have tons of material, and my favorite medium are watercolor, lead pencil and my pen tablet! I also picked photography. My parents failed making me a scientific, definitely! But how do you want to make a child non-artistic when you want the kid to be a little Mozart ??

    The funniest thing is now that my mom’s proud of what I draw!

  10. Betty, this recent post reminds me of the Chinese families I have worked with and currently work with. We have a teaching system that guarantees that the child learn to use his or her perceptual, non-verbal reasoning skills well. Yet, we have to really watch our chinese clients; they tend to go home, do the assignments the old “left-brained” verbal way and then pretend they followed our instructions.

    Last week I was working with a little boy who is mildly autistic and Chinese. I pointed out to the parent how well he is accessing, and using, his perceptual reasoning, nonverbal / artistic thought capabilities. She countered me and wanted to know what those skills are good for.

    One more thing–having a disabled child is incredibly difficult for anyone, but in working with disabled children (and their families), I notice that the Chinese fairly consistently refuse to believe their child is disabled. They will say it, take the child to endless alternative medicine providers, and spend thousands of dollars on sham ‘cures,’ but when it comes right down to it, they believe their child can be brought ‘out of it’ and turned into a normal child. One family I know of is even suing the school system for ‘failing’ their child, who they insisted be placed in a regular classroom. This poor child has numerous neurological problems and I would classify him as moderate to severely autistic.

    Few families handle autism or other developmental disabilities well, but in my experience, the Chinese just do not believe the child is permanently ill.

  11. So proud of you, Betty. I’m forwarding this to Avie. I rather she be an artist than a doctor. How’s that for a tiger mom?

  12. Betty–I love that people responded in such depth and with such feeling to your blog today. I think it really struck a chord. It makes me wonder if art would be a good topic for your next dream contest. Just as an example, you could ask people to write about their dreams regarding art or being or becoming an artist.

  13. Very sorry, Betty! I got way off point. The idea of creativity seems to run counter to having a real job. Of course, the paradox here is that the real jobs were created by creative people! Your artwork is beautiful and the world is a better place for it. Go for it!!

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