The medium of life: Rose Liu examines the impact of human experiences on her art

STORY AND PHOTOS BY DANA HUCH

Sitting at a family common room table covered in brushes, paints and calligraphy papers, AP Studio Art student Rose Liu meditated on her artistic philosophy between bites of apple.

“What is artistic about art, for me, is not just visual,” the Los Altos High School senior said. “It’s a lot of things combined and what I feel about those things that is artistic. … Even just watching the sunset sometimes is like, ‘Ah! So beautiful.’ That’s art.”

On a mission to portray beauty in its many forms, Liu has worked in sculpture, photography and a variety of paints.

Liu in her home workspace.

The first artistic medium Liu studied was calligraphy when she was four years old and living in China. She loved transcribing brushstroke shapes that made up revered Chinese poetry, a practice that not only trained her hand to work with a brush and fluid ink, but also “trained her eyes” for capturing realism in human features.

“When you look at a word, it’s kind of like looking at a body; it’s proportional,” Liu said.

When Liu began creating art of her own invention, she found a defined source of artistic drive and inspiration in her relationships. The theme of her current studio art explorative collection is her family’s journey through her late grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent sculpture brushed upon topics of mental health and support. Liu said that the concept for the piece came from seeing loved ones’ mental health decline during the pandemic and wanting to help them — but feeling that they were “unreachable.”

“Untitled” sculpture by Rose Liu in wire, cardboard and acrylic paint.

Inspired by a museum exhibition of Alexander Calder’s line sculptures, Liu’s piece experiments with light and space by creating a three-dimensional line drawing out of wire, liberating scribbles from their usual flatness on a page. Before photographing her finished sculpture, Liu investigated the effect of the light source at various angles to see what she could encourage the shadow to create.

“When the light shines on it, it moves around, and at different angles it’s doing different things,” she said.

The hands reaching toward the central figure stand for friends and family reaching out to help a person whose mental health is suffering, but failing to connect with them.

Despite her success, Liu said sculpture’s rigidity makes it less exciting to work with than her favorite medium, watercolor (“no defined shape, just color”). Liu compared her own artistic temperament to watercolor: carefree and doesn’t always do what one intends, but that’s part of its beauty.

“You never know what will happen [with watercolor], so just let the unexpected happen,” Liu said.

Liu embraces the unexpected in her artistic undertakings and in her life. New media and styles are alluring to Liu, and not just for the sake of becoming well-versed across disciplines. With her innate proclivity to seek unheard wonders, Liu finds familiarity boring.

“I’m the type of person that likes to explore different things,” she said. “I don’t think I have one certain style. This year, I like to experiment with different things. I’ve tried photography, sculpture, watercolor, acrylic, oil paint. I don’t really like settling with one thing and just sticking to it.”

Along with her broad — and broadening — scope of artistic skills, Liu’s curious empathy gives her the ability to render visual marvels from complicated emotions.

“I’m kind of sensitive to other people’s emotions and curious about what other people feel,” she said. “Like, why they do what they do and how they feel.”

For Liu, an art piece can be an emotional investigation, leading her down a line of questioning and ending at a deeper understanding. And when the journey of creating a piece is over, it is not the product, but the captured emotion accompanying the subject matter that makes it art.

“I think whether it is photography or painting, you’re just trying to capture that moment because I think it really is that moment that’s artistic, not really what you put down,” Liu said. “You’re really just trying to capture the beauty of whatever you want to, and for me, it’s my experiences and my feelings that are beautiful.”

Incarnating her ephemeral emotions in art requires quick action, before they fade, Liu said. She uses artistic expression to examine them in slow motion. Liu described her learned release as a “defense mechanism” in response to her experience immigrating to America from China when she was in middle school.

An urge to capture ornate personal narratives in her work fuels Liu’s dedication to her projects, but can come at odds with the momentum of her intensive art class.

Liu in the Studio Art room.

“My natural pace at everything is very slow,” she said.

Academic art demands piece after piece churned out every two weeks. Even in the case of her sculpture project, the result of which she feels proud, she described the process as “stressful.”

Liu said an ideal, relaxing, slow-paced afternoon of art would include what she calls “behavior art”: working beyond the bounds of paper and pencil to create a painting on a friend’s back or chalk art on the street.

“It’s not just about art,” she said. “It’s a lot of other things like the wind, the friend, the feelings, that moment.”

In her most inspired pieces, Liu uses the medium of life to hold intangible beauties of the passing moments for a bit longer.

“Enjoy the moment, sink into the moment, let everything flow like watercolor,” Liu said.

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