Growing up in Beijing, Hai-Ou wondered why she looked so different.
Her cheekbones were higher, stronger, more distinct than those of most other Chinese.
"When I was young, I always felt I was ugly," she said, cupping her face. "I didn't know why I looked so different."
Hai-Ou, 40, found out her cheekbones came from the Tibetan grandmother she never met, from Tibetan landowning kin her father was forced to renounce during China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
Hai-Ou remembers her father spinning tales about his boyhood. The more she heard, the more she felt a "shen-mi gan," or curiosity, about the mysterious. But it would be decades before Hai-Ou, who lives in Crofton, explored her heritage.
She did that through art, and her explorations adorn the Maryland Federation of Art Gallery on the Circle in Annapolis. "Minorities of China," a collection of 32 pieces, is on display until Feb. 8.
The works, charcoal sketches, soft watercolors and commanding oils, feature girls, women and men from China's minority groups in bright costume, holding up labor-etched hands or posing with animals. The most eye-catching pieces are brilliant canvases of Tibetan monks in front of a temple, marching in procession, blowing on bright silver horns.
Hai-Ou is afraid her audience will see political statements she hasn't brushed into her Tibetan work. She wants nothing to do with Richard Gere, the Tibetan freedom movement or the wave of recent films on the topic.
Her paintings, she insists repeatedly, are about herself, her family, her closing the circle for her father.
Her parents, an accountant mother and an intelligence officer father, named her Hai-Ou -- sea gull in Mandarin -- so she would soar high above the ocean waves (Hai-Lan in Mandarin and her father's name). Her father grew up near Tibet in Gansu and had wanted to be an artist, but his family sent him to prestigious schools in Beijing to become a government official instead.
His artistic yearnings took root in Hai-Ou, who began sketching colorful Chinese opera characters when she was 4. Her childish drawings were "lost" during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, during which opera and all else considered bourgeois had to be renounced.
Her father was forced to sever ties with his family in Gansu, who were landowners -- enemies of the Communist movement. He symbolically dropped his family's last name -- Hou -- and never spoke to his family again.
"After the Cultural Revolution, he began thinking a lot about his family and he felt very sad and wanted me to add his [family] name to mine," she said. "But I still prefer Hai-Ou. It sounds better."
Her father's loss intrigued Hai-Ou. Surrounded by half-finished paintings in her tiny basement studio in her Crofton home, Hai-Ou began in rat-a-tat Mandarin to recount her father's fascinating stories about how Tibetans lived near the mountains and hunted bears.
"He said when Tibetan women gave birth, they would get up, tell their husbands, 'Wait here for a moment, I'm going to the bathroom. I'll be back soon,' and then they'd come back carrying a child," she said, laughing incredulously.
Hai-Ou was among one of the first generations of students to attend college in the post-Mao era -- Chinese universities were reopened in the late '70s after being shut for more than a decade.
While attending Beijing's Central Institute of Fine Art and Design, Hai-Ou visited Mongolia for a month to paint but ran out of money for the train ride home. She hitch-hiked part of the way back, then sold her clothes to buy a ticket for the remaining journey.
"The experience was so bad I didn't even get one painting out of it," she said bitterly.
After graduating in 1984, the Communists assigned her a teaching job at Hubei Fine Art Institute in Wuhan, almost 800 miles southwest of Beijing.
Ralph Croizier, a University of Victoria history professor who specializes in modern Chinese art, said during the period that Hai-Ou began teaching, there was an "explosion" of art movements in China.
"The Chinese art world changed enormously," Croizier said. "The main change is that the former tightly controlled socialist realist style gave way to all kinds of modern western influences as China opened up to the West."
About this time, Hai-Ou joined four other artists to form the "Black Friday" group in Wuhan, staging an exhibition in 1987 that included several of her experimental abstract works. At this display, she met her husband, Henry del Valle, a New Yorker teaching English in Wuhan.
"She was the most unusual Chinese person I met," said del Valle, 38, who owns a remodeling business. "Most Chinese women are pretty shy and follow set conventions and rules, but she had no regard for them whatsoever. She was a real individual in a society that doesn't encourage individualism."
The couple married the following summer and settled in Baltimore, taking her daughter from a first marriage, Jenifer, now 12.
Hai-Ou spent several years working as a waitress at Friendly's and doing odd jobs before del Valle's business took off and they moved to Crofton in 1992. She began painting again in earnest. Her minorities exhibit has taken three years of painting from small photographs of ethnic groups she obtained from artist friends in China.
She has more than 100 paintings ranging in price from $320 to $14,000 on display in four galleries in the Washington area and New York.
Being far from her family has not been easy, but she said she doesn't "miss a particular place or a culture."
Pub Date: 1/20/98