Stroke of a brush

Howard Neighbors

  • Joan Lok recently published a book of 72 selected paintings from between 1996 and 2008 called "Ancient Spirit, Modern Flair."
Joan Lok recently published a book of 72 selected paintings… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
December 06, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Special to The Baltimore Sun

As you look across an inlet to the circular domed building at the water's edge, clusters of pink flowers tug your gaze back toward the foreground.

Whether or not you have visited the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, it's instantly recognizable. And the profusion of color framing your view means the 3,000 cherry blossom trees are in bloom.

You have been transported to another time and place, yet you are staring at a wall. That is what a painting can do: effortlessly take your mind on a journey without loading it down with a body to lug around.

That's what Columbia artist Joan Lok did, and will do again next week, as she demonstrates the art of Chinese brush painting at the Central Library.

Lok's Jefferson Memorial painting was the official poster of the 2005 Cherry Blossom Festival and once hung in the Central Library near the foreign language books, and she has filled many more canvasses before and since. The Glen Mar resident began painting and drawing at age 4, as soon as she could begin to control a brush and a pencil.

Applying watercolor to rice paper, Lok melds Eastern and Western techniques to advance the art of brush painting, she said. She is searching for something nearly indefinable in the art form to which she has dedicated herself.

"Instead of looking for how much likeness I can achieve, I ask, 'Did I capture the spirit of the subject? Did I get the essence of what is behind the painting?' " she said.

The painting holds the answer, one that will "just scream out at you," said the Hong Kong native and communications specialist for a federal regulatory agency.

After walking away from a work in progress, the artist will "hear" what's missing upon seeing it again, she said.

"It will yell at you and let you know you when it's done," said the 47-year-old painter, who moved with her husband, David, to the county in 2002, along with sons Wesley and Gary.

Aside from having an innate understanding of the language of art and the requisite technical skills, a Chinese brush painter must harness the flow of energy known as "chi," Lok said.

"I tell my students to befriend the brush; it is an extension of your hand and of your mind, and you can't communicate otherwise," she said. "The chi will flow from your mind to your hand."

Lok recently published a book of 72 selected paintings from the period between 1996 and 2008 called "Ancient Spirit, Modern Flair."

Mai-Leng Ong, a nonfiction materials specialist with the Howard County Library, reviewed the 2009 work last week, and her critique appears on the library's Web site in a blog called "Highly Recommended."

"I love art, and I learned about a new technique by reading this book," said Ong, who was born in Malaysia but is Chinese. She said she frequently reads books written by Asian authors and then reviews them for the blog because she understands the culture.

In her review, Ong wrote that Lok's "unique style of 'bringing Chinese painting into the sunlight' makes her method attractive and pleasing to the eye."

On Wednesday, Lok will draw her audience in by using simple yet graceful brush strokes to create two seasonal paintings step-by-step, one of a snowman and the other of poinsettias.

"I wanted to show something people haven't seen all the time," said the artist, who frequently paints flowers and birds, especially peonies.

"I think it's almost unlikely for you to meet a Chinese person who doesn't love the peony, which is a symbol of prosperity," she said of the large, showy flower.

Lok uses ink sticks that are produced by gathering the soot that results from burning wood and adding vegetable oil, glue and water to create clay. After kneading, the special "dough" is left to dry for months in molds before it is cleaned, polished and decorated. The stick is then rubbed by the artist against a grindstone bowl and mixed with water to create the ink.

Learning Chinese brush painting is like playing a piano - you must practice, practice, practice your strokes.

Giving an art demonstration is, in turn, like giving a piano recital, she said, with people watching your every move.

Chow Sik Fook, who teaches at the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong, described Lok's artwork in the book's foreword as "radiating brilliance, liveliness, harmony and vitality … to nurture our souls and to awaken the world."

When starting out, an artist must "expand his or her innate potential, but there comes a point where you differentiate [among styles] and choose something you can make yours," Lok said.

"When it comes to the bottom line of art, that bottom line is passion," she said, and that's what she found in Chinese brush painting.

And for those who are still experimenting with different styles, Lok offered this simple yet sage advice: "When you find it, you will just know." Neighbors Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at or 410-461-4150.

If you go
What: A demonstration of Chinese brush painting by Joan Lok. (Books available for purchase and signing.) When: 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday Where: Central branch of the Howard County Library, 10375 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia For: Adults and children Cost: Free Information: 410-313-7800

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