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Chesapeake Water IV
leigh wen | oil on canvas | 2007

When asked to describe what direction her work is currently taking, painter and sculptor Lee Wen laughs. “I do all kinds of things,” she says. “I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore.” One thing Wen has done is take the four elements of Western cosmology—water, earth, fire, and air—and capture them into monumental paintings 10 feet high and 30 to 50 feet in length. Completing the massive water element painting alone took her nine months. According to Wen the completed series will constitute a comprehensive whole that will explore the infinite and universal.

Wen’s pieces capture the dynamic colors of nature in motion, flowing across the canvas. Her palette is not drawn directly from the appearance of the world, but rather from what Wen refers to as “the lyric and psychic necessities of my art.” With all the movement in her pieces, the elements almost seem to reach beyond the edges of the canvas, surging outward into the spaces the pieces occupy. To accent this effect, after the paint is applied Wen uses a stylus to carve individual lines, giving the art depth and swells, as well as a rippling effect.
With the elements, Wen plays no favorites. “I have an equal passion for all the elements,” she says. “Air is really flowing, free form, water is the same way.” Wen struggles slightly with the solidity and gravity of earth, the least dynamic of the elements. Some of the works inspiration comes from her train rides from the Hudson to Manhattan as well as ancient Chinese calligraphy. “The graph style of Chinese calligraphy is really beautiful,” she says. “Almost like a dance on paper, so rhythmic.”

Born in Taiwan, Wen moved to the US in 1983 to attend Washington State University. “It was very hard to adjust,” she says. Having her undergraduate degree in Chinese art, with a concentration in on abstract philosophical images, she was confronted with a decidedly intellectual, secular art scene in the US. “A lot of narrative, a lot of propaganda, the trend was different.” She struggled to adjust to the unfamiliarity of American art and somehow managed to keep her minimalist style. Though she now resides in landlocked Loudonville, outside of Albany, being from an island gave her a deep affinity for the power of water and the forces of nature. Her Taoist beliefs also fuel her love for creating nature in her artwork. “Nature is [the Taoists’] branch of knowledge,” she says. “We watch how nature moves, grows, recycles, and [we] learn the theory of nature.”

Wen has been exhibiting nationally and internationally for over 20 years, and her work is featured in a number of corporate and private collections She has been a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship as well as a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Wen’s paintings have been exhibited in American embassies around the world for the past five years, part of the US State Department’s Art in Embassies program, including stops in Jordan, the Philippines, and Singapore. In mid-March, Wen will travel to South Africa for two weeks to conduct art workshops for who do not have access to art supplies or art education, an adjunct to the Art in Embassies program. “It’s a wonderful, great honor,” she says. “It gives the children a lot of exposure to art, I’m so looking forward to it.”

The Beacon Institute for River’s and Estuaries will be exhibiting paintings of water by Leigh Wen in their gallery at 199 Main Street in Beacon, March 8 through July 8. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, March 8, from 5 to 7pm. (845) 838-1600; Portfolio:

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  • Artist Leigh Wen discusses tackling all four elements.


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