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Strong Strokes

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Because she was born in the Year of the Horse, Yinglei Zhang considers herself an exceptionally tough, ambitious woman. But her paintings, now on display at Middlebury's Ilsley Library, don't immediately suggest the qualities associated with that sign of the Chinese zodiac. Using the traditional forms and media of her native China, Zhang composes delicate ink-and-wash studies of plum blossoms, bamboo, rocks and wildflowers. A couple examples of her calligraphy are also on display as part of a diverse show of works by five area women.

In the basement studio of her hillside home looking toward the Adirondacks, Zhang explains how one of the exhibited paintings, "Silver Integrity," actually does express her mettle. "In Chinese art, everything comes from within yourself. You paint your ideas, and you use nature to express yourself," she declares in an animated and assured manner. The thick bamboo shoots stretching across the rice paper of "Silver Integrity" can be seen as a metaphor for strength and resilience, the 51-year-old artist explains, pausing at points to choose the precise English word.

With cropped black hair framing a still-smooth face, Zhang's compact figure radiates vitality. She seems the quintessential "alpha female."

The other artists in the Ilsley show, each more than 60 years of age, agree that Zhang's efficient, energetic response to challenges may reflect her relative youth within this group. "Oh, she's a real go-getter," says Prindle Wissler, 93, who paints colorfully streaked abstractions as well as outsider-style street scenes. Wissler credits Zhang as the prime organizer of both the library exhibit and the quintet itself, which has been meeting regularly for a couple of years.

Mary Volkert, who makes geometric cutouts sometimes reminiscent of Navajo patterns, says that Zhang "took over for all of us old ladies and made sure this show happened. We admire Yinglei a great deal," Volkert adds, referring to Zhang's tailored look as well as to her art.

Also participating in the show are Marjory Cady, whose pastel landscapes have evocative titles such as "The Wild Sky Tears Open Your Heart," and Ann Taylor, a photographer and painter strongly influenced by Georgia O'Keeffe.

Zhang's works, despite their surface serenity, manage to stand out amidst this variety of styles. Their non-Western composition is mainly what sets her pieces apart, but they also hint at sorrow as well as steely stoicism.

Perhaps in keeping with her self-reliance, a woman born in the Year of the Horse "has a hard time finding a proper husband," Zhang notes, relating to her own experience.

Zhang's spouse announced that he wanted a divorce shortly after the couple moved to Middlebury in 1997. She was left alone to raise their son, then 7. "I was looking into myself, wondering at that time what can I do with my life," Zhang recalls.

"I was a very happy wife and mother," she continues, without a trace of bitterness. Zhang explains that she met her future husband, a U.S. citizen, in the mid-1980s; he was studying Chinese at Stanford University and she had recently moved from China to San Francisco to earn an MBA. When her husband got a teaching job at Williams College in Massachusetts, and later at Middlebury College, Zhang followed.

Cut adrift in unfamiliar surroundings, she decided to develop her artistic talents by taking some classes at the Community College of Vermont. She had been awakened to this interest many years earlier through a job that involved watering a Stanford professor's garden. "I saw some pieces of sculpture he had there and realized this was my dream -- to be able to make art."

Zhang enjoyed drawing as a child in China. But because she excelled in all her subjects at school, she was chosen to attend a teachers' college in Jiangxi Province in southern China. "I was selected to do this, and you have no choice in China but to accept," she says. "There is a freedom in the States that is not present in China. Here you can be what you want to be," she says.

One of three accomplished sisters, Zhang seems to owe her ambition, in part, to her parents. "They always emphasized hard work. They always told us to study hard, to do our very best." One sibling now works at an architectural firm in Paris while the other teaches at a university in China.

Zhang's mother came from a land-owning family that had its holdings expropriated after the Communists took power. Her mother nevertheless became an enthusiastic supporter of the Chinese Revolution, and remains so to this day, Zhang says.

Her father, who died a few years ago, had fought in the ranks of Mao Tse Dong's guerrilla army during World War II and afterward. However, the Communists accused him of spying on behalf of their Nationalist enemies, the Kuomintang. Unable to prove his innocence, the elder Zhang attempted suicide by drinking ink and was sentenced to a "re-education" camp. Eventually he was rehabilitated and became an official in the central government.

After her schooling, Zhang worked for 12 years at a secondary school in Wuxi, a mid-sized city near Shanghai. She taught classical Chinese literature -- a subject she continues to pursue through her painting. Like most Chinese visual artists for the past three millennia, Zhang includes lines of poetry alongside the images she paints. Some of the poems are by famous masters, and some are her own.

Although she insists, "Teaching is not my dream," Zhang earned a Master's in education from St. Michael's College and has taught Chinese art at various Vermont institutions, including St. Mike's, Middlebury, Green Mountain College and the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow.

Leafing through a box of drawings stored beneath the drafting table in her basement, Zhang says her work primarily reflects her 30 years in China, but has also been "enriched by Western art" she has seen and studied since coming to the United States. "I'm definitely a Chinese artist, but there are other influences that may grow stronger," she suggests.

Zhang's working method remains true to the Chinese tradition. Unlike an academically trained Western artist, a Chinese painter works from memory, rather than from life or from a model, she says. "If you paint something literally, it's like a photo," she notes disapprovingly. And despite the Chinese artist's aim to express moods and ruminations, Zhang has no taste for abstract painting because "it just looks like splashes."

Also in keeping with her aesthetic heritage, Zhang practices writing calligraphy every day. There's no faking with this form, she points out. "You can never fool people with your calligraphy. People can tell from just one character whether you're good at it or not."

There's no doubt Zhang will do what it takes to become an admired calligrapher. "I try my hardest and I don't complain," she says. It must be the horse in her.

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