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Chinese Brush Painting

By Blondell Peterson
September 2005

Janet Guthrie enjoys painting picture perfect chrysanthemums.
Janet Guthrie enjoys painting picture perfect chrysanthemums. (Photo by Blondell Peterson)

Ellen Ko shares brush stroke tips with Janet Guthrie and Joan Roberts.
Ellen Ko shares brush stroke tips with Janet Guthrie and Joan Roberts. (Photo by Blondell Peterson)

The Rall Building cafeteria was decked out with a festive and rather colorful eastern atmosphere for six weeks beginning July 13 in recognition of Asian Pacific Heritage Month. NIEHS employees took advantage of a Chinese Brush Painting class sponsored by the Diversity Council.

The giggling and raucous laughter didn't give it away, but a nutshell Chinese history lesson was taking place during the fun painting class. Each subject in Chinese brush painting has a meaning.

Bamboo is hollow inside and symbolizes being open minded, accepting new ideas and accepting criticism that can lead to growth. Plum blossoms grow wild in the countryside and symbolize just being you. Orchid blossoms are the first flowers to bloom in the springtime in China. They symbolize that no matter what kind of condition you are in you can overcome it. The chrysanthemum means long life.

Ellen Ko, art instructor at North Carolina State University and the Cary Jordan Arts Center, taught the class how to paint a different brush stroke each week for four weeks. On August 4 the pupils put all the brush strokes together to paint chrysanthemums. In the following class, they painted Iris flowers.

Crystal Hager-Braun, a scientist in the Laboratory of Signal Transduction, said it's all in how you load the colors on the brush. "This is how I keep my sanity, by being an artist. I'm just doing it for fun," she said. The fun paid off when she sent an original painting to her uncle for his birthday. She painted it at 3:30 in the morning and sent it to Germany.

Michael McLaughlin, a computer hardware support specialist, said he took the class "to relax" and his bamboo paintings are "proudly displayed" on his refrigerator at home." He said his 12 and 14-year old daughters couldn't believe he painted them.

"I'm enjoying the class," said Janet Guthrie, a program analyst in the DRCPT. "She's an excellent instructor. This helps us exercise whatever part of the brain it is that we don't use in clinical stuff. I've always been interested in Asian art, so it's been fascinating trying to do it myself. You can't beat the price and we get a lesson in culture as well."

"Usually Chrysanthemums are brought to a funeral in western culture. In Asian culture they mean life," Guthrie said.

Ko patiently guided each student while she laughed along with the rowdy ones. The drama was fine with her since she has a degree in broadcast journalism as well. She also encouraged those who claimed to have "no artistic talent" including a certain writer who shall remain nameless.

Joan Roberts, a chemist and physicist in the Environmental Toxicology Program, said flatly, "I can't paint. I have absolutely no artistic talent," as she painted picture-perfect chrysanthemums with stems and leaves. "She just did this to my brain," Roberts said. "NIEHS should remember that this will expand our creativity in the laboratory. I don't know anything about art and Ms. Ko changed my life. Look what I'm doing! It's wonderful. It's inspiring the creative brain so we can go back to our labs [and excel]. It's for the good of the Institute."

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