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Meditations on Taiyuan


Surrounded by soaring mountains in the Shanxi Province of China, Taiyuan is an ancient city as well as a modern hub of manufacturing and coal production. Its residents’ lives are shaped, in small and large ways, by the vicissitudes of the local  industries and their related environmental impacts.

SMFA student Yimeng Lyu, BFA ‘24, hails from Taiyuan and is fascinated by how the city’s inhabitants adapt and thrive in this changing environment. As a 2022 Summer Scholar, she spent the summer conducting independent research, which culminated in a series of paintings that serve as symbolic meditations on daily life in Taiyuan.  

Lyu began her research by conducting interviews with family members and friends currently living in the city as well as reading first-person accounts of life in Taiyuan. She then read several books on traditional Chinese art forms and environmental economics, and consulted regularly with her faculty advisor for this project, Professor of the Practice Mike Smoot.

“One of my goals was to use imagery to show how daily life in my hometown has changed across generations,” Lyu says. “Industry and environmental concerns are major issues across the world, and it was challenging at times to narrow the scope of my project. Ultimately, I’m trying to create intimate, personal pieces that reflect the complexity of residents’ lives through a humanizing lens, as opposed to one focused on data points and theory.”

One of her pieces, When It Rained, was inspired by conversations she had with her grandparents. As children, they recalled running along the local train tracks and waiting for train cars to charge past, dropping chunks of inky black coal. They would carry the stones back to their yards and save them to sell. When it rained, the piles of coal would run, moldy and glistening, across the wet earth. 

“Through this piece I hope to capture a youthful naivete,” says Lyu. “How my grandparents’ generation thought about and interacted with the coal industry may be different from how current and future generations consider this natural resource.”

Her largest piece, Mother, Father, is a monotype made with litho ink, paper stencil, and printing paper. It features a large yellow figure in the middle, surrounded by a white and black textured background. Lyu conceived of the yellow figure as an animal with “a large body, thick neck, and bulging mammalian breasts.” By using an abstracted image of an animal, the piece evokes the man-animal mythology present in many ancient Chinese bronze sculptures and “explores the concept of man’s newly established dominance over the land.”

Her piece, Midnight, is an abstract still life made from acrylic and gesso paint, Japanese watercolor, and Indian ink. It signifies the cultivation of plants for use as food and decoration as well as a universal desire to inhabit an unpolluted natural utopia. 

“Many people in my hometown have started to buy pothos plants for their homes,” says Lyu. “Their trailing leaves propagate easily, they are affordable, and they remove toxins from the air. I drew inspiration from the creative ways in which Taiyuan residents create greener homes for themselves.” 

Lyu also created a series of six paintings, which represent different recreational outlets in Taiyuan. These works evoke water as a natural resource and the region’s many water parks, spas, and hot springs, which are an important part of the local culture. “These commercial spaces help residents to fill their lungs and skin with an embodied feeling of nature - something we all unconsciously seek out,” she says.

Lyu credits her coursework at SMFA and the Tufts Medford campus with providing her a strong foundation to undertake independent research. In particular, she took two formative drawing classes with Lecturer John Ros and a course on Colonialism in Global Perspective with Professor Kris Manjapra which greatly informed her project. She also worked closely with Studio Manager Louis Meola to refine her approach to printmaking.

In addition, she regularly met with her mentor for this project, Professor of the Practice Mike Smoot, who advised her on ways to explore social issues through art and provided one-on-one instruction in lithography and screen printing. “I am so impressed by Yimeng’s work this summer,” says Smoot. “Particularly the way she connected current events with traditional Chinese artmaking practices. Her pieces are beautiful in their complexity, both conceptually and aesthetically, and I was honored to be a part of her process.”

Reflecting on her work this summer, Lyu says: “I was used to a structured classroom setting, so it was a challenge to work so independently. This project has made me a more observant person. I not only examine the subject of my art; I pay close attention to the environment surrounding it.”

Banner Image: Yimeng Lyu hangs her piece Mother, Father at SMFA. Photo Credit: Yimeng Lyu.

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