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Meet Xiao He

Today we’d like to introduce you to Xiao He.

Hi Xiao, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
In the summer of 2015, I met the Tibetan Thangka artist, Mr. Gesang, in the mountains of Santa Fe, New Mexico. That experience changed my life forever and led me down the path to pursuing art. Earlier that year, I left my hometown in southwest China and came to the United States for my college education. During summer break, I was volunteering as a Chinese interpreter in Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market. That was when I met Mr. Gesang, who taught me about the history of Thangka art. His determination to pass down traditional art to contemporary audiences and the power of art surprised me. that was when I realized that art can cross the boundaries of language, religious beliefs, and politics in its representation of eternal beauty equally in front of the viewers. I was deeply moved and still am today. At that moment, I knew that art was worth devoting my whole life to.

In the following spring of 2016, I transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, taking classes in painting, artists’ books, photography, and other mediums. I felt like a fish in the water, hungrily absorbing art history and techniques and creating works day and night. My experience as an artist has allowed me to meet incredible fellow artist friends with whom we exchange works and help each other critique our works even until now.

Today I live and work in New York and San Francisco, leading a dual life of a working professional and artist. I now mainly draw with colored pencils and Chinese mineral paints while occasionally creating oil and acrylic paintings. I travel a lot to western Americas to paint the landscapes and natural scenery while also lingering in the city for inspiration. I see, I feel, and I paint. Today, I have had my artworks exhibited internationally in major cities such as Paris, New York, Shanghai, Madrid, and Genova. Right now, I’m preparing for some upcoming exhibitions in Paris and Lisbon.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Back in 2018, I was a fresh college graduate with a fine arts degree. Years of studying master paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, long studio hours, and art critique have prepared me to become an artist but not so much how to financially support myself in society. A friend recommended studying programming, which I tried and found myself not too bad at it, so I went to Carnegie Mellon University for a master’s degree and started working as a software engineer after graduation. Despite my shift in career, art has never been away from me. Even during the busiest times of graduate school, I still did my sketches and went to get inspired at the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh. Longing to be in a creative environment, I moved to New York after graduation and have been living and working there until early this year. Then I start to come back and forth between California and New York now.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
Drawing and painting is my way of expressing myself. My primary mediums of art are colored pencils and Chinese painting pigment. I create my works by dipping my pencil into pigment and apply directly on Dura-Lar paper, a type of semi-transparent paper. This combination results in a thick and textured mixed media drawing with almost an oil painting feeling. I discovered this technique completely by accident when I was working on colored pencil drawing first and happened to have undried Chinese watercolor nearby. I have not heard of anyone else working with this method so I’m proud to say that I invented this drawing technique completely by accident.

The first work I would like to introduce is The Bride. It was exhibited in 2022 Art Capital Paris at the Grand Palais Éphémère and was sold to an art collector in this year’s New York MuseConnect Gala auction. I started out with collage using fashion magazines inspired by Dada collage. I then painted the female figure using colored pencils and Chinese painting pigment. The Bride depicts the very moment when a woman becomes a bride. People typically imagine a white long dress and elements like pearls, and in my work added elements such as animal patterns and tights because I believe women should have freedom of choosing what we wear, regardless of marital status. I find the freedom of clothing to be very important because it is an important aspect of being independent.

Another piece I would like to introduce is titled Fragments. The colored pencil series Fragments consists of color, shape, pattern, and words, and the title is inspired by Haruki Murakami’s Fragments – Nostalgic 1980s. These fragments are elements of emotions, memories, history, hidden corners of the earth, glimpses of a leaf, edges of a painting, and more. These elements are impressions instead of truthful depictions. Each piece contains short phrases taken from reconstructions from contemporary Chinese poems. The relation between language and visuals is parallel – one side is not created for the other side. This creates a possibility of dialogue between the language and the visual, the gap of which is bridged by the viewer. What exactly these pieces of fragments create is thus decided by the viewers. Fragments was selected in an open call in Upstream Gallery (New York) and was exhibited in the gallery’s 8th annual juried paperwork exhibition Layers of Time.

Lastly, a painting that has a very special place in my heart is Outside of San Felipe de Neri School (Oil on Canvas), a plein-air painting I did while traveling in New Mexico in the summer of 2021. I see New Mexico as my second hometown, and I’ve always been very intrigued by the adobe houses. Unlike the architecture that one would see in New York or Chicago, you hardly see any hard edges in adobe houses. The curves and the mud are just like skin, and they seem to have temperature and life, which fascinates me. I have this painting hanging in my bedroom, and every time I see this painting, it reminds me of the lovely adobe houses and my fond memories of New Mexico.

Is there a quality that you most attribute to your success?
I grew up in the 1990s in Southwest China, living with different relatives following my father’s bankruptcy and divorce, sometimes in a glamorous apartment for months, sometimes in a temporary shelter inside a candy store for years. At that time, I was always hungry, always cold, and wearing donated clothes, and even a private bathroom with a shower was a dream in my childhood. When I have obstacles in life later on, I think that it is because I have experienced poverty at such a young age that makes me courageous to take on risks because life can only get better from here.

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Xiao He

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