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A Brush With the East



Published March 23, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Karla Van Vliet's family goes back seven generations in the Green Mountain State, and to those of us who can't claim "real Vermonter" status, that seems like a pretty long time. But Van Vliet has adopted a much more ancient tradition: Chinese brush painting. With roots some 6000 years old, the now familiar brush-and-ink landscape genre was firmly established by the 4th century. Executed with delicate washes and the fewest possible strokes, the paintings defined "minimalism" long before a 20th-century art movement took that name on the other side of the world.

Van Vliet, now 37, was already a published poet and a figurative painter when she first put an ink-dipped brush to rice paper in 2001. That was in a class at the Lincoln Library taught by Chinese émigrée Yinglei Zhang of Middlebury. Van Vliet recalls of her lesson, "I thought, 'This is it --I'm going to go home and throw away all my art supplies.'" The simplicity and meditative quality of the ink paintings immediately spoke to her. "For me, it's more about depth and perspective, and how things move within the painting," she says.

The style seems to suit Van Vliet temperamentally as well: Slender, dark-haired and brown-eyed, she's soft-spoken and serene. She seems at once grounded and ethereal, self-assured yet humble. It takes her a while to reveal her sense of humor, or her passions, to a stranger.

Her previous works in oil and acrylic were "all about color," Van Vliet explains. And though her painting and sculpture studies at Bennington and Goddard colleges had been focused on classic Western styles, she also had a penchant for making "Mary boxes." The constructions featuring the Virgin are somewhat kitschy, though Van Vliet says she was attracted to Mary "because of her unconditional love." Examples of her earlier artworks are scattered about the Bristol house Van Vliet shares with husband Nate Newman and 6-year-old daughter Sadie. But the New England homestead is beginning to look as if a Buddhist roommate has moved in.

Since that first class, Van Vliet says she paints sporadically but in depth: "I'll paint two weeks and do 20 paintings," she suggests. Her work has appeared in half a dozen exhibitions --primarily in area restaurants --and is now represented at Bristol's Art On Main as well as Human Hand in Ferrisburgh and Middlebury's Great Falls Club.

Of Van Vliet's current show at Bristol's Bobcat Café, the casual viewer may think, "Oh, Chinese paintings." That impression comes from both their flawless quality and the characteristic red seal --the stone-carved stamp that Asian, and Asian-inspired, artists use as a distinctive signature. For her seal, Van Vliet chose Chinese characters that symbolize her name: woman/earth, oath and water. She's not certain of the color's significance, but, Van Vliet points out with a shy smile, "Red is good luck." It also pops out of the austere black-and-white works, yet somehow complements, rather than distracts from, the elegant compositions.

A closer look at Van Vliet's paintings reveals, of course, that these are not Chinese landscapes at all: The meandering rivers, open fields, trees and mountain backdrops are strictly Vermont. "I know this land," says the Bristol native; "it's in my blood." Though she takes snapshots on location as reminders, Van Vliet says the paintings are not meant to portray particular places. "It's really more about the technique, the impression, the way the ink acts on the paper," she says.

Regardless of origin, these paintings provide a retreat from the brash, noisy information overload of modern life. Bordered with simple black frames and white mat, the creamy rice paper conveys a timeless, organic sensibility; the spare, figure-free scenes look pristine, untroubled and unhurried.

For Van Vliet, the calm landscapes that emerge from her brush are also like two-dimensional echoes of her layered, imagistic poetry --she writes with the same economy of line, as it were. Though not haiku, her poems tend to be short, and they honor the space between thoughts. Van Vliet, who earned an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College in 1995, says she used to write a poem a day. And hers is still a world of words: She coordinates the New England Young Writers' Conference at Breadloaf, and for three years has been on the admissions board for the annual adult convocation there as well. But when she began the brush paintings, Van Vliet nearly gave up writing altogether. Now, the paintings are shaping new poems, and the poems are entering the pictures.

In her home "studio" -- really just a corner off the dining room, illuminated by a northern window -- Van Vliet is working on a new series of paintings to fulfill a grant she recently received from the Vermont Community Found-ation. "This particular grant is for artists who want to move their art in a different direction," she explains. "I want to move my poetry into the paintings."

One such work is in progress: Along its upper edge runs a faint line of hand-lettered words, barely legible in pale, good-luck red ink. To the left, a rectangle of rice paper, painted a delicate turquoise and holding a Chinese character, is collaged beside an ink-brushed landscape. The mélange of traditional and modern, scenic and literary, is striking. Moreover, it is completely her own. "Somebody else could do the painting, but someone else could not paint that," Van Vliet says, pointing to the new work. "These paintings to me are exciting. Bringing the two things together, I feel like they are wholly me."

Yinglei Zhang seems proud of her student, suggesting the departure from Chinese tradition is just fine. "I teach the way to use the brush and ink, and how to work on rice paper," she says. "Karla is pretty creative; she combines all the things together... We don't do this, but it's OK, she is not Chinese," Zhang adds. "It's multicultural, and emphasizes the individuality."

In the U.S. for 20 years and in Middlebury for nine, Zhang teaches at colleges and other locations around the state. She is also a poet, and has helped bring the annual exhibit of contemporary Chinese artists to Burlington's Phoenix Gallery. Zhang says the landscape of Vermont reminds her of home. With the brushstrokes Zhang taught her, Van Vliet makes home look like China.