American essayist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said, “The world is but a canvas to our imagination.” For Sally Feng, it’s a sentiment she firmly relates to, particularly when it comes to creating art. The Jericho resident has been pursuing her muse, dating back to when she was growing up in her native China. Since emigrating to the United States to pursue and earn a degree in fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1999, Feng has earned quite a bit of renown for her work in oil portraits and sumi-e painting, which is an East Asian type of brush painting. With the moral and emotional support of her husband Robert Fader and teenage daughter Cici, the former fashion designer has been teaching classes and had her work recognized in a number of juried competitions. Feng had her sumi-e work “Autumn,” chosen to be part of the 2016 exhibit “Ink Images: An Exhibition of Art from Taiwan, Japan and the U.S.,” which was held at Manhattan’s Tenri Gallery. With five works being chosen from each country to be showcased, Feng was in elite company as she was only one of five artists from around the United States to get the nod to be part of this exhibit. Interestingly enough, the inspiration for this work came from one of the classes of young people she teaches at her Syosset studio.
“With that piece, it was a birch tree and I never painted one of those. One of my students asked me if I could paint a birch tree because she loved those kinds of trees, so she gave me a picture that she wanted me to do,” Feng recalled. “I was honest with my student and told her that I never drew a birch before, but I was going to try it. So I did the whole demo in the class and I couldn’t stop. I wanted to leave them some time to paint, but everyone wanted to watch the whole thing get finished. So that was the first time I ever painted a birch tree, even though I remembered taking the train from the city when I was a little girl and going to see my grandmother in the countryside, where she lived. I saw these trees all the way there, and it felt like there were eyes watching me. When I was working on this painting, I started to study the trees again and that’s when I fell in love with them again.”
Art has been a tradition in Feng’s family, with her great-grandfather and father being respected calligraphers. Unfortunately, art didn’t really become a factor in her life as most of her childhood coincided with the Cultural Revolution, a socio-political movement that took place in China from 1966 to 1976. Spearheaded by Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Communist Party of China, the idea was to forsake old customs, culture, habits and ideas as a means of uplifting the country. What this meant was artistic expression was not only discouraged, but could wind up having someone sent to a reeducation camp. Not surprisingly, Feng’s father impressed upon her to suppress any artistic inclinations. It was a decision necessary to avoid trouble, but something in him felt guilty about it after the Chinese government wound up dismantling this movement in the late 1970s. It was around this time that his only daughter started down the path to the art world by doodling free-hand images of movie stars off of magazine covers during downtime of her non-art-related job.
“I started to draw these pictures of movie stars at work for fun because I was bored. My coworkers and other friends wanted to know when I started learning how to draw like this and I told them this was the first time that I was doing this kind of thing and they didn’t believe me,” she said. “My father felt guilty. He knew I had the talent, but I started very late. He thought I was very good and he started to send me to one of his friends to take art classes to see how I would do. I told my father that I really liked it, so I started to take all different kinds of classes. I told my father that I wanted to go to art school, which was a college that was very hard to get into. My father thought it would be too hard for me because I had just started and I would be competing against people who’d been doing it since they were kids. I told him I wanted to do it and I started working hard and spending time doing all different kinds of artwork. I did self-portraits, still life and whatever else I could do.”
Recent years have found Feng serving as president of the Asian Artists Association of New York, having a solo show in Beijing, China in 2014 and currently teaching art three days a week to children ranging from elementary age up through high school. She’s also taught adults over at SUNY Old Westbury and at the Jericho Public Library. Throughout, the thirst to create continues to be a constant source of satisfaction for Feng.
“When you see something beautiful, you want to see how you can transfer this to a painting. This part become part of your life. I think within the last year, my art has grown in different directions. I feel like everywhere can be my inspiration and I want to do work that is more contemporary,” she said. “Before, I didn’t understand why Picasso’s periods seemed so different. Now, I totally understand. You give yourself a theme and see where you can go. You self-study, get inspired by something and then you want to do something else. Spiritually, I have this wonder of reaching to see how far I can go.”
Visit www.Sallystudio.com to learn more about Sally Feng’s artwork.
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