TANEYTOWN — Wong Chuan Wen's nearly four-year journey to the United States started with a sketch pad alongside the Great Wall of China.
The 45-year-old middle school art teacher was along the wall just outside of Beijing sketching the portraits of tourists when he met three American art teachers from Florida who liked his work.
In fact, they -- and a group of professors from the Maryland Institute College of Art -- were intrigued enough by the self-taught artist to pay for a U.S. study tour that brought Wong to Northwest MiddleSchool here yesterday and will bring him to the county's six other middle schools today and tomorrow.
"I have made a lot of foreign friends and met a lot of foreign colleagues," the quiet Wong said afterteaching a class of seventh-graders the basics of drawing. "I'm very, very lucky."
During two 40-minute sessions in Lee Anne Gilland'sart class yesterday, Wong showed the students how to draw mice, fish, bamboo, cats and even Chinese calligraphy.
Wong's techniques astounded the students and their teacher. He earned rounds of applause for his five-minute portraits -- like those he painted along the GreatWall -- of Northwest Principal Bronson Jones and eighth-grader Kristie Muller.
"You make it look so easy," Gilland said.
"You want to try it?" she asked the nearly 20 children in her class.
"No!" came the unanimous chorus.
"They can do it, it is really very easy," said Wong after the class. "They just don't know it, because they didn't try."
He pointed to a wall where he had pinned several worksby a 6-year-old Chinese student he teaches.
"She has painted morethan 4,000 pictures," he said.
Wong arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Aug. 27 from his home in the manufacturing city of Tianjin, or Tientsin, China's third-largest city. After the long flight, he spent four more hours on the road to Iowa.
Besides instructing at schools there, Wong has taught in Wisconsin, Connecticutand in Carroll. He expects to return in June to his daughter, who isin the sixth grade, his wife and his job as an art teacher.
He isone of only a handful of artists who have been allowed to travel to the United States without the financial backing of the Chinese government, he said.
"This has all been paid for by my American friends," he said.
Wong's art education is not a formal one, he said. He learned to paint much the same way he learned English.
"I practicedand looked at textbooks," he said.
But both skills, he said, havemade him a better artist.
"I have learned a lot from the Soviet Union and from Western cultures. The language gives me a chance to participate in cultural exchange."
He has been an art teacher since 1967. His strengths, he says, are portraits and calligraphy.
To Wong, the United States seems so uncrowded. In China he lives in a modest home in the heart of Tianjin, an ancient trading center of more than 8 million inhabitants about 100 miles southeast of Beijing.
The school he teaches in does not have an art room. He said a room like Gilland's would be very rare at his school.
"Every place has been interesting, and big," he said. "You have many more buildings, many more classrooms just for art."
Wong will teach classes today at Eastand Sykesville middle schools. Tomorrow, he will teach at New Windsor, Mount Airy and West middle schools.