Walking into the modest house situated at 524 North 7th Street, there was a spirit of calm that washed over me when my feet hit the threshold. I’d spent the entire day working my way through LowerTown, running errands and finally ending my day at the home and studio of artist and art instructor, BiLan Liao.
Everything looked crisp and clean--newly laid floors and fresh paint on the walls. The simple floor plan and lightly decorated rooms drew attention to the paintings the artist had done, which now covered the walls. BiLan was busily and happily preparing tea for the two of us to enjoy while we chatted about some of the projects she’s been working on in LowerTown.
Always feeling rushed, I had only allotted 30 minutes in my day with the intention of quickly going over a few of BiLan’s upcoming projects—primarily a beautiful new construction project going on next door—the artist’s new studio space!
Little did I realize that within this sweet and lovely woman was a tragic tale that would captivate me for almost two hours, thus changing my outlook on BiLan and her work! As BiLan explained how she became an artist and what brought her to the United States I could barely speak. I felt ashamed of myself for being in such a hurry and almost missing out on a learning a lesson in perseverance, determination and painful endurance. While her new studio is an amazing addition to the LowerTown Arts District, it is truly BiLan’s paintings that tell her story best.
BiLan and her family endured persecution and extreme hardship for nearly three decades. The person she is today has been defined, in part, by her experiences in the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Freedom of speech, the privilege of being educated, and the right to be human were denied her and her family as they were viewed as enemies of the government. This status was earned due to her father’s spoken views against communism.
The family suffered for many years as the “new” China emerged under the dictatorship of Mao. Those against the government were severely punished and children were no longer educated, but, rather, were sent to farms to receive what the Chinese government called a “natural” education. According to the Museum of the Cultural Revolution, approximately 70% of young women on these farms were subject to sexual abuse. Fortunately, BiLan was spared of these miseries as her brother took his place on the farm to protect her.
BiLan craved knowledge and worked diligently in secret to learn about art, dance, music, and other topics. Through her studies she developed a love and passion for knowledge. As China began to evolve, opportunities presented themselves to BiLan one by one, allowing her to go to college, and to eventually work as an artist in China. She became a respected professional and teacher there until her journey finally led her with her daughter to the United States.
In 2008, BiLan began teaching at the Paducah School of Art and is now participating in Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program. A new studio, complete with a gallery space to display a series of work she completed called Paintings as a Window onto Historical Events: The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The paintings are not for sale but will be displayed in her gallery for the public to view. They tell a story of oppression and ironic idealism. They tell a story of courageous leaders and silent sufferers. They inspire the viewer and shame those who take freedom and education for granted.
I was more than a little impressed with BiLan after spending some time getting to know what motivated her and inspired her art. The lessons she has to teach her students and her enthusiasts will inspire a new generation of youth to stand firm in the face of adversity and to endure. Courage comes at a price, as it did for BiLan’s family, but her story proves that perseverance brings satisfaction in the end.
For more information about the artist and her work, please visit bilan.bilanliao.com.