Over the years, Judyanna Li has worked tirelessly to interest her students in the art of traditional Chinese painting. Elizabeth Kerr meets the esteemed artist and educator, who is now looking to retire and refocus on her own creativity
I like the simplicity. Oil painting is quite messy,” explains artist and teacher Judyanna Li of the classical Chinese art form she was drawn to three decades ago and which she remains passionate about to this day.
Sitting in a little studio in the flat she moved into with her husband just a week before, Judyanna looks relaxed, sporting a Jean Seberges-que pixie cut that shaves a decade off her 62 years. The studio walls are lined with art books, drawings, canvases and prints, and the biggest piece of furniture in the room is the expandable table that Judyanna works at. There’s barely a removal box in sight, and the flat is remarkably organised. It might look effortless, but it’s not. “I’m exhausted,” Judyanna says with a chuckle.
A native of Hong Kong, Judyanna and her husband Danny Ho have been living in Discovery Bay since the late 1980s. They moved around as their family grew and contracted, but Judyanna is one of the original DB residents. At the time, she and her husband were working at establishing their own construction business, which had offices in Kwun Tong. “We moved here because it was far enough away to let us relax and unwind on the way back. We worked in construction and it was high stress. The ride home was nice. And we didn’t go out that much,” she says of what was then a very different neighbourhood.
Judyanna didn’t come from an arty family or get side-tracked into traditional commerce after art school. She got into art simply because she came to appreciate the beauty of it – and she did so relatively late in life. She was nearly 30 and had just had her first daughter. As a new mother without a long commute every day, she found time to study traditional Chinese painting privately. Her tutor was the prominent Hong Kong artist Mok E-Den, who himself tutored under renowned artist Ting Yin-yung. Ten years later and about to become a mother for the second time, she decided to get more serious about her art too.
“I’m very lucky,” Judyanna says. “We had a successful business when I had our second child. I’d studied painting for a decade and thought maybe it was time to put more into it. Not another business per se, but more than just a hobby.”
And more than just a hobby Judyanna’s art certainly became. She has shown her work to critical acclaim in Hong Kong and on the mainland, one of her paintings, Mt Huang in Mist, hangs in Jingmen Art Museum, and she’s listed in a 1998 directory of the most eminent Chinese artists worldwide.
But back to the early days (1995), when Judyanna set up an art studio in DB with the aim to focus on her own work and promote interest in the art of Chinese painting in the younger generation. She soon started teaching Chinese painting to children and adults – at the Discovery Bay Recreation Club (DBRC) from 1997 to 2017; at the DB Alliance Church Community Centre from 2000 to 2019, and at Jean M Wong for Arts in Kowloon Bay and North Point from 1999 to the present.
Judyanna’s classes were a big hit from the get-go, as were the highprofile exhibitions she held with her students. The first Exhibition of Chinese Paintings by Judyanna Li and Her Students was held at Hong Kong City Hall in 1997. Notably too, in 2000, Judyanna jointly organised the Exhibition of Chinese Painting by Children in Hong Kong and Shenzhen with Guan Shanyue Art Museum.
“When I teach young children (the majority of my students), I can always get some inspiration by watching the way they paint,” Judyanna says. “And I’m happy to say a few of my students have turned professional in the art field.
“I love to promote Chinese painting at schools,” Judyanna adds. “I’ve done this at numerous schools over the years, including Discovery College and Singapore International School (Hong Kong), and the response from both students and teachers has been amazing. Parents tend to focus on academics, on maths and English, and kids have so many after-school activities. There’s less time for art. It’s very competitive out there.”
Painting in the traditional style
Judyanna’s preferred art form is recognisable for its distinct watercolour-like brush strokes that focus on flora, fauna and idealised landscapes. Even those with only a passing knowledge of art will be familiar with the elegant simplicity that is a hallmark of the style. “Chinese painting is similar to watercolour but the outcome is different because of the paper and the process,” explains Judyanna. “I only need two brushes, a bottle of ink and four colours. That’s it. And the beauty comes from that. I’m a very simple person. I don’t need fuss.”
Judyanna’s work has the spare focus – a single bird, a single branch – that is a hallmark of guóhuà, with a touch of Mok E-Den and her own unfussy personality thrown in. Most of her paintings are drawn from memory and simple observation, often from her morning walks around DB, and occasionally a photograph.
When asked about her career, Judyanna is charmingly reticent,choosing to focus on her relatively low-key solo exhibitions held at the DBRC in 2014 and 2016. “The purpose of my solo exhibitions in DB was to raise funding for a local charity group called UniHeart, which was founded in 2011 by a group of professionals who are committed to helping others and giving back to the community,” she says. “The DBRC has been very supportive in so many ways.”
The esteemed artist
Asked about her success as an artist in the wider world beyond DB, Judyanna again modestly ducks the question, saying, “I exhibited most frequently between 1997 and 2007.” Fortunately, she refers me to one of her exhibition booklets, and there’s abiography. Here are some highlights:
In July 1997 (just two years after she got serious about her art), Judyanna was asked to participate in a Shenzhen Art Museum exhibition commemorating the Hong Kong handover. In 1998, her paintings were featured in the directory Calligraphy and Painting Collection of Eminent Chinese of World Over [sic]. In October 2003, she was invited by the Department of Calligraphy and Painting in Jingmen to participate in an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy and paintings by famous artists in the region. (Judyanna’s family originally came from Guandong.) It was at this time that Mt Huang in Mist was picked up by Jingmen Art Museum.
Judyanna’s first exhibition at Hong Kong City Hall was in 1998, where she presented over 50 paintings. She participated in the Exhibition of Chinese Paintings by Members of the Ge Shan Art Society in 2002 and 2004, and in The Delight of Chinese Painting in 2004. Her last major exhibition, an Exhibition of Chinese Paintings by Judyanna Li and Her Students, was in 2007, also at Hong Kong City Hall.
When she started out, Judyanna wasn’t convinced her artistic curiosity would translate into a second career, but here she is. “I found the depth of a few simple strokes very interesting, but I didn’t think I would be able to paint. But then again, when I was young, I was in a choir and I didn’t think I could sing,” she says with a laugh.
Though she’s not making any promises, 2020 will be the year Judyanna gives up teaching for good and toys with another solo exhibition (her last was at the DBRC in 2016). Perhaps she’ll also start experimenting with portraits. “I’d love to, but I’m not sure yet how to work my own style into that. It takes time, and I hope I still have time. I would also like to spend more time on my golf game. I’m now playing three to four times a week,” she finishes with another laugh. “There’s so much life to enjoy.”