My name is Emma SzeYun Lo. I am an Artist and Graphic Designer. I started to study art at a very early age and it has been a part of my life for more than half of it.
My Earliest Art Related Memory
I remember when I was four years old drawing with crayons on the side of large boxes which were stored under a desk in my living room. However, one of my fondest art memories is actually one of me and my dad. I used to sit by the open door of the basement suite of an old Victorian house where my family lived in East Vancouver. Our basement door sat on the side of the house along a stone path beside an old wooden picket fence which was laced with a bush whose vines had grown there for years and blossomed each spring with fuchsia-red flowers shaped like hot peppers that drew hummingbirds. I spent a lot of my time there, sitting there during the warm and hot months with the door open, a pen or pencil and a binder with sheets of paper on the ground beside me, my dad in the kitchen a few feet away. On this particular day I remember asking him how I would draw a bicycle. He took the pencil from my hand and drew me a bicycle. I thought it was the best bicycle drawing I have ever seen and when he handed the drawing back to me I continued to copy the drawing so I can draw a bicycle just as well as he did. I was five years old.
Discovery of Potential
In the sixth grade, in art class, we were assigned to draw a portrait. I remember returning home that day from school and cutting out a beautiful blonde lingerie model from an ad and I drew her in graphite and shades of a #2 hb pencil. After a few other art assignments the teacher soon gave notice to my parents and encouraged them to place me into art studies outside of school. Soon, I found myself having to draw sketches of random items for my father to gather together to create a small portfolio. He did this under the request of an artist that he had approached in regards to taking me in as a student. Before accepting me as a student, she had to see the current ability level I had as an artist. I was eleven years old.
Learning With Letty Shea
In the spring of 1995, on Saturday afternoons after Chinese school classes, I started to attend art classes in the basement of a large beautiful home in South Vancouver. The home of artist: Letty Shea. I was not her only student, when I started there it felt very intimidating to be learning to paint with someone I barely knew, alongside students that were in their senior years high school. Letty was kind and gentle to me, she possessed a certain calmness with a welcoming aura and her presence cannot be remembered without her smile. Throughout the years under her wing, she built the foundation of my artistic knowledge. With her I learned sketching still life. She would set up different geometric shapes in a corner of the studio, up on a table and sometimes she would have us sketch the different white plaster faces that were hung up on the white walls of the studio. On warm spring and summer days she would have students set up easels and art boards outside in the garden of her backyard. There, we were free to draw the peonies, roses, blossom trees and all the different plants. Buddha sat there too, a smiling statue that sat looking over a small koi pond in the corner of her backyard with a bench alongside it. On certain days you would be lucky to be there when the waterfall was running down onto the koi pond, it would excite the koi and sometimes you can catch one or two jumping up out of the water. Every week students would be given a new assignments of paintings to paint, the class would start off with her demonstrating and painting for us, or sometime we would be given a painting and then we would spend the class trying to recreate it. The strokes, the techniques, the colors. She would watch over the students and correct them where needed. There were some days I remember feeling that the assigned paintings were much too advanced for me, but homework was homework. I would return the next week and hand in my best efforts she would critique me, telling me of my mistakes and sometimes spend time in the class to practice the corrections. She mentored me in so many ways, telling me stories of why in Chinese culture we paint certain things. Here is an example, the first thing you usually learn when learning to paint with Letty Shea is bamboo, however it wasn’t till sometime after until I progressed into using color in my paintings that she said to me,
“Do you know why we paint bamboo? what it symbolizes?…The bamboo is strong, no matter how strong the wind blows, or cold the winter, or how hard the rain falls, it remains standing. The bamboo may bow down to these elements as though out of respect but will never break to them.”
My memories of the four years that I spent with her feel stretched and edited. Some years longer than others and some too short. I remember days after classes where I would wait for my dad to pick me up and Letty would allow me to go upstairs to her living room and entertainment room to watch tv as I waited for him. Some days we had dinner together. As years went by she felt more like a welcoming aunt.
In the last few years that I studied with her, I noticed that her older students who graduated from high school slowly stopped attending classes. Her students became fewer and fewer and she became sicker and sicker. The illness she battled began to take its toll on her and her mobility became restricted. She moved from her large home into a studio and a studio apartment on West 8th and Yukon Street; a large square blue building with yellow painted steel beams that stuck up from its center into the sky like a crown.
I witnessed her steps as they became fewer and fewer until there were no more footsteps for me to follow. I felt as though I had lost all of my artistic ambitions when she died in the summer of 1999.
A few weeks before her passing, before one of the last paintings I would paint under her guidance she said to me that in our four years together I had exceeded her expectations. Confessing she had taught me in a faster pace in a short period of time. In me she had placed the amount of knowledge that was equivalent to a student that had been with her for ten years and my skill level had caught up to the students that had been with her for five to six years. She had taught me all the basics I will ever need to know and it was up to me to perfect them.
I have always wondered if she knew she was dying. I was fifteen years old.
Learning With Mah Zi Ping
3 months after her passing, my father collected some of my art work once again to show a friend of his who happened to be a colleague of Letty’s. After reviewing some of my art work and saddened by the news of Letty’s passing, he decided to take me in as a student. He reviewed my work and believed that this style of Oriental Painting that I was learning called Lingnan should continue on and that the knowledge and skills that I possessed should not be wasted. He pushed me to paint again and I had to re-learn everything. He started from the beginning, his methods were different, stern, and a little rough around the corners but his smile was genuine and kind. His paintings were different from Letty’s, they were a little more somber and dark in comparison to Letty’s paintings which were much more brighter and vivid. I studied and painted out of the Southern Sky Studios in Chinatown with Mr. Mah for a total of seven years. In the first two years I was with Mr. Mah, everything was very strict and very much routine similar to when I studied under Letty. In the last five years, after graduating high school, he allowed me to paint much more freely. I was there at the studio more often painting more than just on Saturdays up on the third level in a studio that sat across the street of the Sun Yat-Sen garden. I had during that time devoted myself to studying and painting this art style. Mr. Mah allowed me to set up some space in another part of the studio where I could work out of. He would come into my space once and awhile to see what it was I was working on. He would walk in with a smile and when he liked my painting he would sometimes even take over for a bit. He’d grab a brush, mix some colors and paint small additions to my paintings. To me, I would like to say we collaborated on it. To him, he was just adding some things to make it perfect.
Apprenticing under Mr. Mah, I learned greatly in the ability of mixing colors and the importance of composition. He taught me more than just painting however, he taught me just about everything I may need to learn to self sustain in the needs of an Oriental Art Painter. In the world of Oriental watercolor painting you paint on rice paper, sadly living in a Western world, when it comes to framing Oriental watercolor paintings it isn’t all that easy. I have stories of dropping off my artwork to local art framing stores such as Michael’s but they were too afraid to cut off the edges of my artwork in order to frame the art properly and was advised to trim it myself before handing the piece over to them. This is where I learned the importance of specific cultural shops such as Chinese art framing stores, in comparison to a regular art framing store. Mr. Mah, he seemed to understand and recognized that I needed to possess this specific skill set and with him I learned how to mount oriental watercolor paintings. In the last two years with Mr. Mah, he said to me that there was really nothing else he could teach me that I probably haven’t already learned. He seemed to enjoy the days where I would appear in his studio to seek advice on a painting especially the ones that pushed beyond the traditional viewpoints of Oriental watercolor painting. He stated once that he liked the fact I was trying different things yet keeping the embodiment of Lingnan traditional art styles, he seemed to understand my creativity and vision of my art pieces. When I would seek advice he would make sure I was listening, he said to me once to pay attention.
“I’m giving you wisdom, like putting money in your hands.”
My Teachers And Their Teacher
It was within a year after learning with Mr Mah that I recognized that both him and Letty shared the same techniques and brush strokes. Letty Shea and Mah Zi Ping during sometime in their lives were both students of Master Chao Shao-Ang. Mr. Mah, told me a story once about his teacher – that during the wartimes one of the most important items his teacher took with him as he fled from his home was his paint brushes. With the paint brushes he was able to rebuild what he had lost. The most admirable lesson I took away from this story was that his master, in the worst of times was still able to hold onto the idea of creating something beautiful. Master Chao Shao-Ang was a student of Gao Qi-Feng. One of the men who started the Lingnan School of painting.
I can’t really tell you what generation of artist I am as a Lingnan artist, fourth or fifth, but today I paint in spurs of inspiration, and when I do it’s in dedication to the teachers of this art and the generations before them. I paint in hopes that they can look upon me and be proud.
I stopped painting out of the studio of Mr. Mah in spring 2006, after I began to attend The Art Institute of Vancouver as a full time student.
In Between the Brush Strokes
Although most of my art studies evolved out side of the regular school system, I still hold highly in regards the years of high school art which exposed me to different medias such as conte, chalk pastel, oil pastel, acrylic paints and even sculpting. The world becomes more fun with the color and shades that they produce. They allow me to indulge and embrace in another dimension. I don’t see the world the same way when I work with them. The world is more surreal and simple. Conte makes me want to draw like the old masters, Leonardo, Michelangelo, sketching strangers with beautiful lines and simple colors of black, white and sienna. Chalk pastel and oil pastels changes my eyes into those of a child. I pick them up and I change how I draw, sketch and color. My fingertips stain with color. When I fall into the world of art, I’m happier, because nothing but this matters, nothing but the art that I’m creating before me. Sculpting was one of the most fortunate things I got to participate and explore in high school and college. I feel at peace when I’m working with my hands. I am in control of the clay I am molding, the sandstone I am carving, the metal I am bending. The study of perspective on paper is different than the study of it in the third form. I feel the art in the physical and my views of the sculpting merges with the world around me and I appreciate so much more.
Late In the Year of 2002
My first two semesters at Kwantlen University studying art had just passed, one which I was able to attend with the aid of art scholarships I obtained from high school; I studied Drawing I & II and Sculpting I.
I was then introduced to the third art teacher I would have outside of the school system. This time it is to study something entirely different and rare. The art of carbon powder, also known as charcoal powder. This would become another point in my art education where I had to begin to learn my skills again, this time it was with an artist named Huang Su Ya. With him I studied the art of portraiture. Like all things we started in the black and white, first with graphite and the sketching of strangers. It was soon after we moved onto charcoal powder. Charcoal powder is unlike any other media I’ve ever worked with, the art of dry brush painting cannot be controlled and tamed by anyone, or at least for the ones that don’t like to get dirty. By the end of the class my hands would be covered with soot and there were be smudges on my arms. The patience that I had to develop when creating a portrait with carbon powder took time. I was very much use to picking up a pencil and sketching my heart out. With carbon powder, it was dabbing the brush into the powder, moving the brush onto a piece of scrap paper where it would be rubbed so it broke the powder particles down allowing them to absorbed into the brush before applying it to the portrait itself. If you rubbed too lightly there would be little disturbance, if you rubbed too hard and made a mistake you could not erase your mistake away without leaving behind a trace of it. I had to learn control and layering, here I had to earn the right to work in color. I had to learn another level of patience. In mid 2003, I was privileged enough to start working with color. The difficulties with working with color were greater than I imagined. Even untill this day I have yet to master working with color carbon powder. It’s learning to apply color in layers, layers that can be blended together smoothly. The best way to describe working with carbon powder it is like airbrushing in photoshop, except not on the computer. This is how they used to do it, before computers even existed. The style of the deco-orient. I was with Mr. Huang for 6 months when he encouraged me and stated that he believed I had what it took to become a great artist and like all things I could master this art with practice and time. I had the skills to past it on to the next generation. A part of me is afraid, as I ask myself, how do you carry on a style of art that seems to have been so easily forgotten?
Mr. Huang encouraged me and sponsored me in 2002 my application to become a member of the Chinese Canadian Artists Federation of Vancouver.
I was 21 years old.
With Mr. Huang I did a few events to promote my culture and the art. Participating in Chinatowns Cultural month and Summer festivals, with a table with art and demonstrations of carbon powder art to the public.
In the fall of 2005, my father enrolled me into Chinese calligraphy classes, believing that since I could paint well, I should at least learn how to sign my name well in Chinese. I started attending classes in Chinatown at the Chinese Community Centre under the guidance of Mr. Gum a master in the art of Chinese Calligraphy. If I could not attend his classes at the community centre, there were days I attended classes at his studio. At first I thought it wouldn’t be all that different from oriental watercolor painting, but after the first day, I knew it was a whole different ball game. The brush maybe the same, but the way the brush is held and its strokes are far from it. It is the concentration of perfect strokes, knowing how to lift, press and push the brush to its limits and beyond. Controlling the flowing ink and memorizing the order of the strokes. Memorizing words I can barely read, learning one character at a time and the beauty they possess. This art goes hand in hand with oriental watercolor painting and I hope one day on my own masterpieces I can write an original poem.
The Changing of Time and Mediums
As long as I can remember, I have always dabbled. I used to believe that in this time, knowing how to do a little bit of everything doesn’t hurt. I started to play around in photoshop in the tenth grade but when I was admitted to the Art Institute of Vancouver in April of 2006 my world became immersed by the computer screen. My external art studies came slowly to a halt and all concentration became pointed into the sketchbook then onto the screen. My brush became a tablet pen, a pen tool that is not a real pen, a brush tool that is not a real brush and I create on an art board that is not a real canvas. My reality shifts.
15 months after enrolling into Art Institute of Vancouver, I graduated with a diploma in Graphic Design and have been working in the graphic design field ever since.
In 2009, I started to heavily record my endeavors and created more art. I turned to social media to push my art to another level. Creating Youtube videos and tweeting my artwork, sharing everything on facebook. Blogging my adventures, I was writing my own biography, sharing my personality, who I was, my art, my world. My online alias as Syloarts – began. In the end I did all this because, I didn’t want someone else to telling my side of the story.
Keeping up with the social media and working full time takes it’s tolls. After a few years I found myself doing daily jobs that did not appeal to me anymore. I began to burn out at my day job. I felt like I had forgotten why I decided to pursue graphic design in the first place. I had initially entered graphic design as a study so I could have the knowledge and ability to embed the culture and traditional art styles that I have learned from years before onto a different medium. One that would attract and inspire the younger generations to somehow allow it to live on.
Burning out at my job opened up my eyes to the fact that I don’t want to be “a jack of all trades, and a master of none.”
Today, it’s not surprising for me to say that I may perhaps be one of the youngest Lingnan Artist in Vancouver. I will continue to paint and one day hopefully be able to teach, to ensure that not only an art form continues but also a part of Chinese culture as our generations continues to grow in a Western society.