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Lan Yao

“The struggle of balance,” she continues, “the underlying challenge to not overdo it. I have to forget that there will be an audience and remember just to paint the things I want to.

Art has always been a grounding force for Lan Yao.  For her first 8 and a half years Lan  lived in Beijing, China where the rigid communist government largely controlled the actions of its citizens, Art offered an escape.


In Beijing everything was so manicured. School children would march home after school in organized lines emanating outward from the school to their respective neighbourhoods. Stepping in unison down concrete streets[3] , Lan recalls passing small squares of green grass guarded by signs saying, “Stay off! You will be fined.”


“I would sit for hours,” Lan says. “I had to study every subject, every day, it looked like I was doing homework but I really wasn’t doing homework.” She laughs. “I used to just draw creatures all the time, on the edges of my notebooks. I drew these numbers that were also people, and they kind of hung out with one another ….. Breaking the rules without breaking the rules… Anarchy sitting still. ”


““I had so many lessons- School was crazy, I was so stressed. The level of math that you’re learning at that age… I was just stressed… My parents were very strict,” Lan continues,  “but I’m really glad they put me in Traditional Chinese water colour . Even though it has a lot of rules, the one thing it teaches you is to be very free with your line flow. It was the only class I felt free to move. It’s the type of painting where the actual physical movement of the arm is expressed in the painting. The feeling of the line is part of the painting. This style is still in my work, I always start with a wash and line flow is very important to me… I love Rodin for this, even though he is known as a sculptor; he has the ability to translate feeling and motion into a simple line. Leaving it open to interpretation.”


When Lan was 9 her family moved to Canada; it was a sudden and surprising change of scenery. Canada was very different. “We moved to Edmonton originally; the flight landed in Vancouver so we caught a bus to Alberta and driving through the Rockies was unlike anything I had ever seen before, everything was so wild. It was almost kind of terrifying, but exhilarating, exciting.”


Her new art teachers in Edmonton supported her painting. In high school; the teacher elevated Lan’s curriculum to equal the first year of art school. She was asked to consider how and why she painted. This led to Emily Carr College of Art & Design in Vancouver. After graduation, Lan returned to school and pursued 3D Animation after a friend spoke highly of the pay cheques. “I hated the projects,” she says, “but I liked the people. And I made a lot of money, but I wasn’t really happy… I was so burnt out and beat down from scraping by in Vancouver. Trying to pay my rent, I was so focused on that. I left art school thinking I wouldn’t be an artist. I didn’t realize there were people living in their cars.”


She met Ben (her now partner) who lived in a Toyota Tercel with a tiny wood stove at the time(yes, a Toyota Tercel -with a chimney). “I didn’t know there was a way to do it differently,” Lan says, “but of course there is.”


Lan left the animation company she had worked at for 7 years and moved to Squamish, picking up odd jobs around town and spending her free time running and climbing. The physical freedom created a space for Lan to gravitate back to painting. “I just like observing and taking in details and what’s going on around me; anything, a certain colour, or a certain shape of a building or a persons face. Inspiration from tiny details, moments, all put together.”

Lans relationship with Ben -he’s choice for simplicity- has helped Lan find her happy place, a place that allows for artistic growth. Not that it is an easy way, but it is Lans way. “As a full time artist it’s been hard. I still enjoy painting, but it’s hard not to think about the money… You gotta live after all.” The struggle of balance, the underlying challenge-to not over do it. I have to forget that there will be an audience… I have to remember just to paint the things I want to. Wake up and say ‘oh, I want to paint this.’ Because it’s the process that I have fun with, it’s not about the finished product. Sure, that’s evidence of the process but I think it’s more about the experience of the process… I get kind of sad when a project is over. It’s like ‘oh what was the big deal, that wasn’t that hard.’ ”


words :: Kieran Brownie