Wang Yani was just 2½ the day she slipped into her father’s studio in Gongcheng, China, and scribbled over a work he had spent months perfecting. Wang Shiqiang, a professional artist, was understandably upset at his daughter’s experiment, but he could not find fault with her explanation. “Daddy, I just want to paint,” cried Yani. “I want to be like you.”
Yani got her wish. With her father’s encouragement she quickly mastered China’s traditional brush-and-ink style of painting, and within months it was clear she was a prodigy. At 4, she had her first show; by 6, she had completed 4,000 paintings, and by the time she was 8, one of her works was reproduced on a postage stamp. More recently the shy, 5′ wunderkind, whose works now number about 10,000, became, at 14, the youngest artist ever to have a solo show at the Smithsonian Institution. Titled Yani: The Brush of Innocence, the show opened June 25 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and will travel later to Kansas City and San Francisco. It features 69 of Yani’s paintings—some of which she did at 4—showing a playful world of monkeys, birds, trees and flowers. What makes Yani’s paintings special, says assistant Sackler curator Jan Stuart, is that she uses “traditional Chinese subjects like monkeys to express her own childhood experiences.”
To help kick off her U.S. debut, Yani and Shiqiang, 40, left Gongcheng, in southern China, and visited Washington, D.C., last month. Their trip was nearly canceled because of the turmoil in Beijing, but Yani prefers not to talk about that. What she is happy to discuss, through an interpreter, is her art. “When I paint,” she says, “if I am surrounded by people watching me—that would make my day. The more people, the better.” Then she adds quietly, “I like every painting, and I remember every one.”
Back home in Gongcheng, Yani explains, “I go to school at 6:45 every morning. At 11:30 I come home, then I paint. I go to school at 2, come back at 5, then I paint and have dinner. Then I go to school at 7 and come back at 9:30.” When she hears that Americans go to school for six hours a day and get the summer off, she breaks into giggles.
Yani’s family has worked hard on her behalf. Her father, now an administrator for the cultural center in Gongcheng, stopped his own painting years ago so he could concentrate on nurturing Yani. To help keep her in supplies (paper alone costs $1,000 a year), her mother, Tang Fong Jiao, 39, works in a department store. And Yam’s 9-year-old brother has been discouraged from painting because the Wangs feared Yani would be influenced by his style.
So far, Yani’s delight in her craft has been the family’s major reward. Her paintings are valuable—a set of four prints she donated to the Chinese government were snapped up by a Japanese collector for $13,000. But artists in China are often restricted in selling their work privately, and as yet Yani’s paintings, which are stored at home, are not on the market.
Perhaps a career with a firmer financial future will be in order someday? Yani seems bewildered by the suggestion. “It is not possible,” she says. “I only want to paint.”
—Ron Arias, Katy Kelly in Washington