By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
A group of Chinese American teenagers is fighting the coronavirus with art.
The Pacific Artists’ Alliance (PAA), a dozen mostly schoolgirls in the Seattle area, has organized an online auction to sell artwork by local artists to raise money for hospitals in Washington state.
Asked if it was an attempt to combat stigma against Chinese that is flying from the highest levels of the U.S. government, the teenagers, in a Zoom conference call, demurred.
“We’re not trying to change any image people might have of Chinese,” said Emily Zhao, 17, president of PAA. “We just had a deeper connection to the outbreak earlier on,” she said.
Nor is it solely about raising money.
“Art can help us appreciate what beauty there still is in life and bring us together at this time,” said Helena Feng, 15, one of the organizers and a writer.
Their website shows 44 pieces of art ranging from exquisite oil paintings done by renowned local artists, to sketches of dancing girls and vibrant pottery done by the students.
Some of the students reached out to local artists. Others contributed their own work. The students put no restrictions on the topics of the art works.
And so the website blooms with festoons from paintings of flowers, shiny, glazed pottery bowls that seem suspended in an eternal opening upwards, and more prosaic subjects, such as a sketch entitled “tea time” that shows hands making tea.
On one hand, it seems a reminder of the constants that remain during a dark time—flowers, rituals of eating and drinking, nature scenes of lakes and trees. On the other, it contains traces of eerie steadiness.
A portrait of an Israeli girl donated by one of the artists stares out at the viewer in grim determination.
Still, many of the art works were completed before the outbreak.
Vanessa Ping, 13, painted a picture of two flowers and apples two years ago using oils, then donated it to the auction last week.
Jessica Ruan, 16, this year created two painted slabs with ceramic glaze showing a Chinese style drawing of a bird on the branch of a flower. Her piece has already sold for over $100. She plans to go to an art academy after high school.
“Being able to donate a piece means I can help even though I’m not a doctor,” said Ruan. “And it is doing what I like to do, which is art.”
Proceeds going to hardest hit hospital first
The proceeds from the auction will be donated to Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland, where most of the state’s earliest cases have been treated.
As of March 20, PAA was still waiting for bidding to close. The deadline for the first round was midnight of the same day. But a new round of bidding opens after the deadline and will continue until March 29.
Proceeds raised from the next round will be donated to other hard-hit hospitals.
PAA is a nonprofit founded by the students. But under state law, an adult over 21 is required for a bank account.
So PAA asked a local Chinese educational organization, Little Masters Club (LMC), to help transfer the money.
The request was natural because PAA grew out of LMC, which has over 1,000 Chinese families as members, mostly on the Eastside, and is dedicated to providing kids with leadership opportunities in education.
PAA began as workshops that older students were offering to younger kids in ceramics, crocheting, and other forms of arts and crafts. Workshops and art lessons were also conducted at Mary’s Place, a local homeless shelter for families, and Children’s Hospital.
But last year, they decided they wanted to form their own nonprofit.
Part of a cultural tradition?
Artists everywhere create art for both different and similar purposes. Leading American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, wrote that art focuses the mind away from all disturbances.
“Each work of genius is the tyrant of the hour and concentrates attention on itself,” he wrote in his essay on art.
But this auction could also be seen as a continuation of a Chinese cultural tradition, said Xiaolin Duan, a historian who specializes in the cultural history of pre-modern China.
“It was very common among artists, especially literati painters, to express
emotion through art to counter social decay,” said Duan, assistant professor of Chinese history at North Carolina State University.
Art was used specifically to counteract evil and death.
As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, paintings of deities and other talismans for protection and to ward off death have begun to surface on WeChat, the most popular form of social media used by Chinese and many Chinese Americans.
Early sorrow and intimate knowledge
For the students organizing the auction, their commitment stems from their early and intimate exposure to the horrors of the disease. All of them have family still in China, some in the epicenter, Wuhan.
“My grandparents are still in lockdown, they haven’t been able to leave their home for months,” said Ruan.
As the outbreak started, they and their parents called family members in China every day. Now, they still text them frequently, but usually call at least once a week.
This kind of immediate contact gave them an awareness that was perhaps lacking in the United States until later, they said.
“We learned about the strict quarantine measures early on, perhaps even before reporters made it known,” said Ruan.
They also learned early on of the nightmarish horrors and ravages suffered by family friends and relatives.
“This was very intimate for us right from the start,” she said.
Their current sale of art works is actually the second auction they’ve held. The first, launched three weeks ago, was to fund hospitals in Wuhan, the hardest hit province in China.
They raised $1,300 for relief efforts there.
To donate art to be auctioned, go to: pacificartistsalliance.wordpress.com/contact.
To view or bid for an art work, go to: biddingowl.com/Auction/index.cfm?auctionID=20571
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.