Jai Lu - Biography
Jia Lu was born into a Beijing that stood relatively
unchanged by the ravages of the Chinese Communist
Revolution. Land reforms and a fundamental reorganization of
government and civil life had transformed relations between
individuals during the five years of Communist rule
preceding the artist’s birth. But the Beijing landscape,
with its narrow, winding alleys and compounds enclosed by
gray walls, the palaces of the Qing emperors and aristocracy
weighted under their yellow and kingfisher roof tiles, the
lakes and parks where one could swim during the summer and
skate in winter, the songs of vendors falling through the
dawn air like the swallows appearing at first light—these
were the permanent aspects of a Beijing that filled the
artist’s memories and provided the earliest inspiration for
a lifetime of work. The people of Beijing still maintained a
dignified politeness among themselves, their language
touched with the dialect of the Manchurian elite and the
terms of respect that had been used in the capital for the
last three hundred years.
Jia’s parents were members of the new
Beijing society. Her father, Enyi Lu,
the youngest son of a landowner in
Jiangsu province, had joined the New
Fourth Route Army at the age of fourteen
and had served as war artist for much of
the struggle with the Nationalists and
Japanese. Later assigned to the cultural
department of the Navy, he rose in rank
in part for recognition gained painting
revolutionary scenes featuring the new
leaders and depictions of navy life.
Jia’s mother, the daughter of a
landscape painter and calligrapher, was
herself a graduate of the new Central
Academy of Fine Arts and worked in the
Forbidden City as a museum exhibit
In 1958 Jia’s father called on the Communist party to
attach greater importance to the work and livelihood of
artists, and was accused of being a Rightist. Reduced in
rank and stripped of Party membership, he was ordered to
repair reservoirs north of Beijing as labor reform.
Investigations of the family revealed that grandparents on
both sides had been important administrators in
pre-communist society, and several of Jia’s uncles and aunts
had accompanied the Nationalists’ flight from China and now
lived in Taiwan. Jia’s family was suspect and accused of
In 1959, with her father still serving
his sentence, Jia’s family moved to
Dongcheng district immediately north of
the Forbidden City, among the old
imperial warehouses and lesser palaces,
away from the naval residence and
scrutiny of the military. Jia’s skills
were recognized and encouraged from the
beginning. In her first grade she was
appointed class chairman and allowed to
join the poetry recitation and fine art
extra-curricular groups at the local
Youth Palace. These institutions
borrowed from the Soviets the idea that
early talent must be identified,
separated and nourished. By 1962, Jia
was acting on Central Television and had
participated in the Beijing
International Children’s Art Exhibition.
It was a precocious, active
childhood, much of it spent away from
home and in the company of teachers.
Drawings filled her letters to her
father. Her imagination was stirred by
legends of Chinese heroes as well as by
European fairy tales. In spite of the
hardships her family felt on the wrong
side of the political fence, it was for
Jia a silver age.
over Beijing in
1966, and brushed
away her poetry and
before it. Jia Lu
saw the drowned body
of her school
from a lake where he
had flung himself to
escape his accusers.
She witnessed local
by crowds of youth
who poured salt into
their wounds. On the
basis of her good
school record, Jia
herself became the
target of angry
students ready to
turn over anything
home one evening,
Jia persuaded her
grandmother to sell
or give away or burn
all that remained of
past. Heaping the
awards she had
earned in her first
five years, Jia
burned all that
might attract the
attention of the Red
Guards, now roaming
That summer she
joined the Navy
children to undergo
training at a nearby
military camp. The
abilities, and she
remained an extra
month with a handful
of girls to receive
Returning to a
burnt-out and all
but abandoned school
in September, Jia
decided the best way
to carry out a
was to rebuild the
place where culture
is taught. She
established her own
Red Guard group, but
with a different
destruction of old
ideas must be
accompanied by the
rebuilding of state
property. Her group
desks and chairs. By
resumed under the
and soldiers. But
more and more, Jia’s
group of school
under attack by
other Red Guard
groups bent on
of the old order.
Accused of being
by rivals, Jia
arrived at school
one day to find her
desk and the floor
and ceiling around
it covered in ink,
glue and written
Realizing that she
was prepared to
fight, her friends
dragged Jia home to
But her courage
was noted at higher
levels, and she was
elected to the
Beijing Committee of
Activists for the
Study of Mao Tsetung
Thought, a position
she kept the
following year into
high school. She
began writing and
for factory, school
propaganda needs of
an endless display
of inspiring images,
her father is
allowed to return to
the Navy. With the
focused on the
rising tide of
family returned to
life in the naval
fifteen, enamored of
the heroic tales of
military life, Jia
Lu decided to join
Jia Lu enlisted in the Chinese Navy in December of 1969, and brought her leadership and creative abilities with her. Assigned squad leader, she continued to produce and direct propaganda plays throughout her military career. The following year she entered the Naval Logistics Command and began training as an operating room nurse. A strong visual memory assisted her in her medical studies, and after working for a year in the Navy General Hospital, she was transferred to the Science and Technology Exhibition Group.
Iin August of 1979 the political climate turned chilly again. Jia was sent for a month of labor reform in the countryside near Beijing, then ordered to lead raw recruits for basic training, again away from Beijing. At the end of the summer she left her post in dismay and returned to Beijing where she secured a transfer out of the military to the National Bureau of Oceanography, on staff with the monthly periodical Oceans.
By 1982, China was beginning to open up to the outside world, and the overseas relatives whose existence had made Jia’s family background such a problem before now invited her to study in Canada. By spring of 1983 Jia had made up her mind.
Jia Lu's first few years in Canada were difficult, but her problems only deepened her resolve to succeed. Jia had given up a job in China that paid two salaries, a certain notoriety for her adventures in Xinjiang, and a growing reputation as an actress, reporter and artist. In Canada she knew poverty, anonymity, and discrimination. Her first room was a windowless basement storage room under a piano shop on Danforth Avenue in Toronto; her furniture were cardboard boxes, her rent paid by moving boxes to and from the shop upstairs. By the light of a single electric bulb she painted her first several exhibitions in the new world.
Jia made friends easily, and by the summer she had met Vivian Huang, an engineer who would soon become her roommate for several years, and Geoffrey Bonnycastle, a young artist and student of Chinese whom she would marry fourteen years later. With her sister Miao Lu, who had come to Canada the previous year, Jia Lu produced enough work for two large exhibitions of Chinese ink paintings.
The paintings sold well and immediately brought Jia to the attention of the Chinese community in Toronto. She began to lecture on Chinese art history at schools and libraries in Toronto with Geoffrey as her interpreter, and later organized Chinese painting demonstrations and related activities for the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum.
Meanwhile Jia was attending English classes in exchange for her paintings, and had decided to blend the experiences of her past with the new art she was seeing in Canada. In 1988 Jia applied to graduate school at one of Canada’s leading art schools, the Department of Visual Arts at York University. She was first admitted on the strength of her work, but later declined because she could not yet reach a high enough score in the Test of English as a Foreign Language. As a compromise, York offered Jia a position as research assistant to Toronto artist Bruce Parsons, provided studio space and permitted her to attend all graduate classes in fine art.
It was not long before Jia discovered the fundamental differences in Chinese and North American art education. The emphasis at the Central Academy of Art and Craft reflected the academic tradition inherited from France and Moscow: rigorous technical training in drawing from plaster casts and from life, pure color and virtuoso brushwork, and an emphasis on realism and social subjects.
York University’s focus was on developing creative problem-solving skills, an awareness of political and philosophical issues relevant to contemporary art, and an emphasis on abstract art and new figurative expressionism. Where in China Jia had been encouraged to suppress her feelings in the pursuit of an objective visual reality and criticized for an abundance of emotion, in Canada she was urged to explore the depths of her emotions, her sexuality and her feelings as a woman, and express them without regard for draftsmanship or painterly skill. It was unexplored territory for her, and she moved tentatively at first, as if not quite trusting what she might find in this abandonment of control.
The resulting paintings were an amalgam of Western and Eastern symbols, punctuated with images from Jia’s childhood, and constructed in layers of different materials, mainly rice paper, acrylics and oils.
Three series of paintings resulted from her experiments at York. The Cocoon series were images of women, stripped naked, in poses of sleep or self-protection, wrapped in enormous dry leaves and silk threads. They revealed Jia Lu’s vulnerability, and at the same time her willingness to expose herself and her fears on canvas in a way she had not done in her earlier work. Her Secret Garden series were more nostalgic, almost surrealist pieces that suggested her sense of self is deeply linked to her early childhood. The Mask series featured classical nude sculpture with the genitals covered by a Chinese opera mask. Most of Jia’s work as the powerful "Self-portrait" featuring a red figure curled helplessly beneath the imponderable weight of an archaic Chinese bronze vessel.
With the inevitable uncertainty that arose from such demanding self-reflection in her work, Jia looked for stability and certainty in her private life. She thought she had found it in Patrick Lam, a chemical engineering student at the University of Toronto. Soon after their marriage in 1986, however, she realized she had made a mistake. The two had little in common and could agree on nothing. After marrying, he took up worked in Sarnia, a petrochemical processing town in Southwest Ontario. Jia wished to remain in Toronto, but by 1987 she left York to try what she could to save her marriage. In 1989 she bore her only son Anson and nursed him as she prepared for her first major solo exhibition. Twenty-two works were exhibited at the Sarnia Public Gallery that summer.
Almost as soon as the exhibition came down, her husband took work in Calgary, Alberta, and sold their house. Jia had no choice but to follow unhappily in 1990. Calgary was as far away from the art world and friends Jia had spent so much time developing for the past seven years. Geographically isolated and kept at home by the demands of an infant son, Jia’s relations with her husband continued to disintegrate. Already estranged from her husband she moved to the unfinished basement of their house, and painted in despair. Two self-portraits from that period are particularly telling.
The first, "Red" depicts the artist wearing the uniform of a Chinese soldier and the Chinese characters for "Proletariat of the world, Unite!" behind her. But beneath the jacket is a red taffeta skirt, stockinged legs and red stilettos, and a collage of lipstick, automobiles, handbags and other luxury items cut from consumer magazines.
The second painting, "Bride" shows the artist dressed in a nun’s habit, holding a bouquet of red roses, with the Chinese wedding symbol of double happiness hanging behind her. By 1990, Jia had sunken to a life that seemed a pale image of the dreams she held for North America. Locked in a loveless marriage and isolated from her market and friends, she had neither the financial means or influence to escape; she barely had the strength to continue painting. Until in 1991 she received a telephone call from Tokyo.
Several years before moving to Calgary, Jia was asked to paint "The Seven Scholars of the Bamboo Grove" for an agent with a Japanese customer. The piece was received well, and the agent invited Jia to travel to Tokyo to show more of her work. Sensing a financial solution to her problems, Jia accepted and in 1991 arrived in Japan.
Over the next two months she met several collectors and painted numerous commissions. Then she met Mr. Isao Abe, the hereditary owner of the Peony Garden of Ueno Park in downtown Tokyo. Mr. Abe wanted to build a replica of the Dunhuang murals for a museum and hotel complex modeled on the architecture and history of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. He asked Jia to provide advise and undertake research. The results were impressive enough that Mr. Abe formally offered the job of Chief Designer to Jia and sent her to China to organize a team to produce a mural of 7,000 square metres.
During her three years in China and Japan, Jia Lu also had a brief return to the world of film. Mr. Abe invited her to join a team of international consultants to propose improvements to a historical romance, also set in the Tang Dynasty, in which he was the main investor. Jia Lu assisted in the selection of the lead role, and when the project was completed beneath the expectations of the investors, led a European team to rewrite the screenplay. Jia Lu also came to the attention of Pierre Cardin’s agent in China at this time, who invited her to prepare original designs for a fashion show based on Chinese costumes from several ages. The show was to be held in conjunction with the Olympics planned for Beijing in the year 2000.
Living in China and Japan after almost a decade in the West reaffirmed for Jia the importance of craftsmanship and tradition in her own work. The return to Asia was part of a process of spiritual recovery and artistic rediscovery, so that when she returned to Canada, she was prepared to take her work and her life in a new direction.
Several months after her return from Japan, Jia Lu finally left her husband of eight years. A bitter divorce and fierce custody battle over her son Anson followed, during which time she was unable to leave Calgary. Her long-time friend and translator from Toronto, Geoffrey Bonnycastle, moved to Calgary to help with her case, and together they established the Jia Lu School of Art in her apartment. Teaching provided an income in a city where Chinese-style painting and Buddhist art had few serious collectors. As Jia’s reputation as a teacher increased, so did her students, until over a hundred youths and adults were taking classes in drawing, painting and design every week in her home.
In the summer of 1996, Jia and Geoffrey spent their earnings on a six week trip to London and Paris. For the first time in her life, Jia came face-to-face with the European culture she had previously only read about. At the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay she was surrounded by masterpieces of Western and Oriental art. For the first time, perhaps, Jia Lu saw the importance of oil painting in general, and paintings of the human figure in particular, to world culture. And like so many artists before her, she fell in love with Paris. She sensed in the architecture, sculpture and painting of the Nineteenth Century an empire at its full glory, comparable to the Chinese Tang Dynasty but untarnished by several intervening centuries. All around, in private and public spaces were sculptures and paintings of the human figure, the magnificence of the nude in its unashamed beauty.
In October 1997 Jia Lu exhibited at Art Expo Los Angeles, an international exhibition of commercial fine art. Her work occupied one of the largest spaces devoted to a single artist and as a newcomer she attracted the attention of several art publishers.
Almost immediately, Jia Lu found she had to make some hard decisions about how she would show her work in the United States. The American fine art market was divided quite clearly between "high and "low" markets. The "high" market was the home for conceptual, abstract and avant-garde work, generally shown in artist-run cooperative galleries, a small number of commercial galleries, and public and university museums. It had its own magazines, critics and collectors. In the 1990s it was also relatively unsympathetic to realistic work. The "low" market was dominated by realistic and decorative painting, shown in commercial galleries, earning very little critical attention, with serigraphy and the newer giclee reproductions as important products.
Unsure how to describe her work, between 1997 and 2000 Jia Lu chose to concentrate on new creations and let the art world decide for itself. She had only begun to work in oils and had a number of themes she wanted to explore, reintegrating the compositions she had developed in her ink paintings, subjects she had explored in her Buddhist designs, and the highly personal, confessional mode she had discoverd in her mixed media work. During this period of intense activity she had time to invite her parents to the United States and now formally studied her father's own impressionist painting techniques, particularly his use of color and looser brushwork.
By 2000 she held several non-commercial exhibitions: her oils were shown at the new Asian Art Center and the United Nations Building in New York, and she was the only oil painter chosen to represent China at an important UNESCO exhibition during the China Cultural Week in Paris. Closer to home she showed at the Pacific Asian Museum in Pasadena.
Commercial galleries in the West began to purchase and exhibit important work to a growing audience. Exhibitions in Denver, San Diego, Santa Fe, San Jose, Bellevue, Los Angeles and Hawaii helped to establish a devoted corps of collectors and supporters. Several print editions began to sell out and her publishers, Alius Fine Art, had trouble keeping up with demand for a book on her life and work.
In 2003, Jia began to develop imagery for a stage production of her own. Originally titled Immortal, over the next three years it would transform into Transcendance, a live musical performance featuring dance, acrobatics, martial arts, magic, on-stage musicians, puppetry, moving sets and spectacular special effects, blending Asian and Western myth and legend. It was an attempt to bring her own paintings to life, to break out of the confines of two dimensions, to blend Chinese philosophy into Western art and to reach a larger audience.
By 2005 Jia had developed the script and concept art with Geoffrey and a small team of artists. The work attracted the attention of Tony Dimitriades, manager for Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Yes and Billy Idol. He in turn brought Jia to AEG, producers of the Celine Dion "A New Day" show at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, owners of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and one of the largest producers of live musical entertainment in the United States. Impressed with the work, AEG signed a contract to co-produce Transcendance and began working with Jia Lu to bring the show to Las Vegas in 2010.
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