Wei Lin Liao
Textile Designer, Cloth Company, Wamsutta Mills
Conducted by Karlyn Allenbrand with Winifred Liao and Peggy Liao on April 3, 2023 at Queens, New York
In this interview, Winifred Liao and Peggy Liao speak about their father, Wei Lin Liao (1922-2011) a multi-disciplinary artist and designer from the Hunan Province in China. They reflect on his life and legacy as an artist and designer in Taiwan and the United States.
Liao's interest in painting and design began early in his youth. While his father and mother encouraged him to seek steady work in the family business, Liao yearned for a career in the arts. At the age of fourteen, he submitted a design for a comic book competition, later winning a small sum of money and an apprenticeship with a local painter. At the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Liao ran away from home to pursue his artistic ambitions. Liao followed the Chinese army to Taiwan, where he began producing graphic works such as propaganda posters. After the war, Liao returned to China and attended the National Hangzhou Art College (now the China Academy of Art). As Mao Zedong rose to power, Liao permanently relocated to Taiwan. Between 1950 and 1965, Liao expanded his artistic range to include set design for Taiwanese film and television, book illustrations, and designs for postages stamps.
After 1965, Liao’s work entered onto the global stage. In 1973, he was invited to St. John’s University to hold a one-man exhibition featuring his extensive illustrations, painting, and graphic works. He later exhibited works at the Chinese Information Center in New York. In 1975, he was selected to represent Taiwan at an exhibition held in Canada. Liao crafted a large installation of colorful paper butterflies suspended above the main lobby. While working between Canada and the United States, Liao encountered the American textile manufacturer, Wamsutta Mills, later accepting a position as a textile designer for women’s apparel. His family followed in 1975 and he continued to live in work as a textile designer in the United States until the early 2000s.
At the age of eighty-eight, Liao returned to Taiwan to live out his final years in the comfort of friends and colleagues. He continued to pursue art and design, teaching drawing and painting to residents of his retirement community. In 2010, the National Museum of History in Taiwan held Liao Wei-lin 88, a retrospective exhibition celebrating his contributions to Taiwanese design and visual culture. This exhibition featured graphics for postage stamps and posters as well as illustrations for children’s books alongside book covers created in collaboration with the Taiwanese author, Ba Jin. Several never-before-shown textile designs and paintings made by Liao during his time in the United States were included as well. Liao is known for synthesizing traditional Chinese techniques like watercolor and lacquerware with bold color and intricate pattern work, shaping the visual culture of Taiwan during the postwar years. His colorful, graphic style has earned him recognition as a father of Taiwanese aesthetics. His works are in the collections of the Taiwanese National Museum of Fine Art in Taichung and the National Museum of History in Taipei.Interview duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Karlyn Allenbrand (KA): This is Karlyn Allenbrand. I am here with Winifred and Peggy Liao in Forest Hills, Queens. The date is April 3, 2023 and today we are going to speak about their father, Wei-Lin Liao. So, we usually start this process with this question. We've begun to discuss this already on the walk over, but my first question is: Do you think he would have considered himself a designer, an artist, or a craftsperson? Or maybe something entirely different?
Winifred Liao (WL): I think he's all that. He will consider himself, I think, as an artist to begin with because that was his training. But as he went through life and was trying to make a living as an artist, he became more commercial and more toward design. You know, he did movie set design, he did book cover, he did poster, stamp design, Interior design, furniture design, ceramic, and textile design. Anything and everything that came along with that offered him the opportunity to create as well as make a living. He will take it on. He never said no to anything! He figured out how to do it and added his touch to the finished products. So, I will say he's a graphic designer. He's a fine artist. He's a craftsman, he does everything. To me, he's a well-rounded chameleon he can do pretty much anything because of his talent and his training. He told me that because of his experience in the many different area in commercial art, he had no problem picking up textile design when our family immigrated to United State from Taiwan.
KA: When did they come here?
WL: My parents came to New York in 1973. My dad was invited to St John's University for an one man show and then he did another smaller exhibition in—
Peggy Liao (PL): Chinese Information Center in New York—
Wei Lin Liao and his wife, Miranda, exhibitition at the Chinese Information Center, New York, 1973. Photo courtesy Winifred Liao and Peggy Liao.
Exhibition at the Chinese Information Center, New York, 1973. Photo courtesy Winifred Liao and Peggy Liao.
WL: Which was quite funny to me. Well that is what I think—who my dad is. What you think Peggy?
PL: For me personally, I think he's a true artist. Because of art, he's willing and open to learn new ideas and new technologies. When I went back to Taiwan to visit him after he retired. He was in his eighties and he saw what a computer can do. He said If I was younger, I would learn. This is so great. He was not afraid to try new tools if it could help his art.
PL: As he collect inspirations from newspaper swipes and magazines cutting to—
PL: —collect for his painting. So, when I showed him Google search, with one click—[Peggy gasps, both laugh.] He was swiping my computer. He was doing all that. He was excited to learn.
WL: He was curious about everything.
PL: So, he’s not like, oh, I’m only do watercolor or I’m an oil painter—no. He was open to any medium, anything.
PL: Whatever tools best expressed himself, he will use it—that to me is a real artist.
WL: He’s kind of a savant to me because he said, at five, he knew he wanted to pursue art. His family wasn't wealthy. His father passed away when he was fourteen. He had ten brothers and sisters. His father had a small business, so his mother wanted all children to be part of the family business to survive. He's the rebel because he said, I was terrible at math. I don't want to be in business. I want to paint. His mother thought, this child is going to starved to death. Because it was very difficult to be an artist and make a decent living at that time. Pursuing art was a luxury, only for the rich and well to do. It's not a good career choice for a poor person, but my dad was born with the undeniable desire and drive to paint and draw! He entered a contest for comic stipe hosted by a well know artist at the time, with cash prizes for winner. Anyway, he won the first prize. He was awarded money and a job, a job in a different province. He had to leave home at fourteen; he knew his mother would not let him take the job, so he ran away. He was so young. He wanted to show his mom that he can make a living with art. Unfortunately, the Sino Japan war broke out right after and he couldn’t go home. So, at fourteen, he was on his own just trying to survive.
KA: He was born in the Hunan Province? Is that correct?
WL: Hunan, Yua Yang. Same as Mao Zedong.
KA: Really? That’s interesting. Is that true?
WL: So he could not go home once the war broke out. He had to follow the refugee student and Chinese military to Sichuan Chongqing, capital of the then Chinese government. He never had a formal primary education, but he got second place in the entrance examination to National Art College. Unfortunately, he did not have enough money to pay for the tuition so he could not go to school. He tried again the next year, and with sponsor from his mentor, writer Ba Jin, he was finally able to enter college and start learning western art. This is where he met a lot of his friends, like-minded young people. In Chongqing where many talents from all walks of life met and blossom during the long war with Japan. So, for his patriotic part, he joined the military doing propaganda posters and theater. 1945 Japan surrender and war ended but soon after Communist took over China. In 1949 my father followed the military to Taiwan. While his family all stayed behind in China. No one came out. So, he was pretty much always on his own, making a living and doing what he loved. He was never rich, but he did well for himself.
KA: That’s interesting you'd say that. The museum in Taiwan said that he went to the National Hangzhou Art Academy.
WL: Yeah, because of war, the Hangzhou art college moved to Chongqing.
KA: Yes. Okay. Art Academy? Yeah, I think it's under a different name now. But I guess my question really would be did he was, so he was professionally trained, but did he receive any other kind of informal training?
PL: I think he followed one guy—
WL: Yeah. He won the art contest, the comics. So, he follow this artist who hosted the contest, working for him. But I'm not clear about how long. He was very young. He was very, very young.
KA: He was fourteen.
WL: A teenager.
WL: But he knew very clearly what he wanted to do. He said he couldn't do anything else. Yeah. He followed his passion. He would be miserable if could not paint. He just had to follow his heart because he knew at five that he wanted to draw and paint. It's amazing to me, you know that he had the talent. He wasn't trained but he was good enough to have won the contest. He was born with the talent that he must follow it.
KA: Was he still in Taiwan at this time? When he was at university?
KA: What were his early mediums? Would you say it was more painting? How would you characterize early work?
PL: Whatever I think whatever available to him. You know, later, he picked up—he loves acrylic. Why? Because he says acrylic can do watercolor, it can do everything. It's like him, acrylic. [All laugh.]
PL: I think before—
WL: Watercolor. He was doing portraits and he was doing more painting, right? He did different things.
PL: He’s not—it’s not—
WL: He’s a chameleon.
PL: He’s not set in this medium. For him, I think it came from his vision of what things appeal to people and that appealed to him. Right? Like oh, this medium would look great with this particular thing.
PL: It doesn’t consume him. So, he can go from here to there—
WL: Right, he doesn’t have a set—
PL: Right. It’s his vision that he sees and therefore, he uses that medium. Not, I do this medium, therefore dot dot dot.
KA: I see. It sounds like he was a strong marketer for himself and his work.
WL: Yeah, he was. He was well known in Taiwan and in certain businesses. If you want to, you know, because there's not many graphics/designer/artists at that time in the early 1950s. So, they would say, like, you want to design a movie set? Oh, I think he probably can do it. You know, go find Liao Wei Lin. Oh, you want to poster? Oh, go find Liao Wei Lin. People knew because there's not that many artists in Taiwan at that time. So, he and his friends became the first generation that provided visual, print and graphic design. Because it’s a non-existing profession in Taiwan during the fifties. He was able to expand his portfolios in so many different media through talent and hard work.
WL: He even demonstrated make up for women. He was doing a talk show and my mom was being the model, like a TED Talk but not that. He was showing how to do makeup.
Miranda Liao seated in a set for television designed by Wei Lin Liao. Photo courtesy Winifred Liao and Peggy Liao.
WL: Hands on. No computer.
PL: It’s not like, oh, you’re a big famous artist. Like, we need this. Okay. I think that’s the first thing. You see it. And the way he does it leaves people like, wow. Like, some books, some tragic novels. Back then, that author was super famous. Qiong Yao.
WL: Chinese Opera, singer, photographer. He did theatre. He tries all the different media. You know what Peggy was talking about? Not Photoshop. In the forties and fifties, there were only black and white pictures. So, he was commissioned to retouch and recolor them. So, there was this chemical you can use to tint the black and white photos into color.
PL: He made people very pretty.
KA: Prettier than they might have been? [All laugh.]
WL: Yeah. You know, when he first came here, he even did portraits in the streets of Soho.
KA: So, when you both first immigrated here, you came to New York? Where did you live?
WL: We lived here. Yeah, we lived in Queens.
PL: Yeah, Queens.
WL: Rego Park first then this area. So when he and my mom first came to New York in 1973, he saw street artists, who do people's portraits on the sidewalk. He's like, oh, I can do that, it’s right up his alley and make some money. That requires some guts to do it, to do people's portraits. He has no ego and no fear.
KA: That’s fair.
WL: Everything he did in his mind is how can I make a living? He's always very commercial with an audience in mind. After he retired, and he did all kinds of painting, even then he was still like, oh, maybe people like more oversize realistic floral. So he will paint more flowers. But he doesn't have to count on the painting to live so it’s more for his own pleasure. He gets satisfaction when someone appreciate his art.
KA: That's interesting. I'm wondering about some of his later works after retirement. In the 2000s, his work seems to reference South Asia a lot more. He’s also doing more traditional techniques like the lacquerware or focusing on the styles of old masters in China. I'm wondering: what do you make of that?
WL: He’s curious, his training is in Western art and Western medium, but he studied old master in both Western and Eastern art. So, the idea of can I do Chinese style painting? Chinese style watercolor? is a new direction, new way to express. He was very free toward the end. He was trying everything. He researched and he was reading. He read like seven newspapers a day. He really liked cutting out stuff of whatever he thinks is interesting and current. We were looking at his painting yesterday and we were like oh, modern.
WL: You know? It was how he interpreted what he saw. He'd become very free. Not all of them were great but you know, he's trying. Yeah, so like Peggy said, he's very curious, yesterday we were saying can you imagine if he has a phone now? He would go crazy with the phone. With the iPhone. He didn't live to see the iPhone. You know? He would not be afraid.
KA: Do you think his identity—being an immigrant, coming from China, and having history in Taiwan—was a large part of understanding his work and understanding him as a maker and a designer?
WL: Yes. I think that.
PL: I think he appreciated all different ethnicities or cultures. He sees beauty in them. You see that. Even though he may never travel there, he can see it. He's not limited. Right? You know, like color or medium. You'll see in his later painting he'll paint African shepherd yeah you know, anything. Anything that grabs his attention he'll want to put it on paper. It's in his head, that passion. He sees something and he wants to put it on paper with his own interpretation of it.
KA: He sounds like a true textile designer. You mentioned that he came for his one man show and that part of why the family emigrated here.
KA: You mentioned that he became familiar with Wamsutta. How did he enter textiles design?
WL: He had a friend of a friend, who was working as a textile designer with Wamsutta. As family was planning to immigrate to the state. so, he needed a job to support five people in New York. He talked to the friend and then he just showed his wealth of portfolio and his art catalog from the one man show. They were blown away by his skills and talent. They were like, okay, he can try. He had to learn how to execute repeat. I mean, he picked up pretty quickly so once he learned that he started and they gave him projects to do and then he was hired.
KA: What kind of textiles did he work with?
WL: Woman’s wear, prints. At that time, I think printing was done in Carolina? Yeah. They were doing everything by hand. You know, I interned with his company for a couple of summers just to make money, too. Sometimes he will take work home just to make extra money and he will show me about repeat. At that time, one print would probably take a week to do. Can you imagine?
KA: Yeah, especially with the separations and the repeat—[Winifred laughs.]
WL: You know, his boss would go to Europe and buy original artwork or samples, then ask the textile designer to reinterpret it into new repeat and textile. Dad will research different assets to fill and create new repeats. That’s what you call it now: different pieces. So, he was constantly collecting images of flowers, leaves, animal, birds, there is a flower encyclopedia which he use all the time. Everything was done by hand, from start to finish. even copy by hand with graphene paper. Yeah, and then paint again. Mixing and matching color by eyeball. There's no color standard. You basically paint it and here's the standard on the chips.
KA: No Pantone to guide you?
WL: No Pantone. I mean the colorist just does colorways all by eyeballs.
KA: You said he brought work home: did he have a studio in the home? Can you tell me a little more about that? What was it like? Did you watch him work?
PL: Unfortunately, no, we were the daughters, you know?
WL: We were teenagers. At that time, we were like, oh, he’s just working. I know my mom sometime help him take on work too. A lot of his artwork, because they're so beautiful and its one of a kind original, his company framed them. I remember when I interned with him, he was showing me many of his work framed on the wall all around the office. If it's broken or damaged or something, it's gone. There was no copy at all. It's just that's it.
KA: Was your mother an artist?
PL: She is but she’s fine art. She didn’t do it when she became a mother and stuff like that. I think later, she did. She went back to university to do a little bit. Yeah. But—
WL: My mom worked for a sweater company. She does the first sample. She's a knitter, an amazing knitter too because her designer will say, I like to put, a tree here, a flower there, bablah. And she'll knit them into whatever the designer wants as first sample. Then they will copy and execute in mass production.
PL: So, my dad did an Art Deco design with Chinese influence. It’s a wool piece. My mom sewed the sequins, and she was helping with all that.
KA: They were they were kind of collaborating in a way.
WL: Yes. She was. Wherever handwork is needed, not so much about painting. More like sewing and crafting. She was also the model in a lot of his painting.
WL: Well, he reads. He keeps research from magazines, books and he take photos. At that time, there's no digital files. It’s always paper. you know? And he just clipped them. Then he will have many, many envelopes filed by categories—later in Taiwan, he had envelopes of image of birds, all kinds of flowers, leaves, people just taped all along the kitchen counter, sort of organized chaos. Then what he does is trace the image to put them into sketch. Pencil drawing first. Then he will do almost like a collage, like he has a vision, and he would adjust all the pieces into the finished painting So, in a way textiles process influence how he paint later on in life.
PL: Yeah, he learned from textiles. So, later, I think in his painting he used wax paper. You taped them together to trace them and reconfigure things. In Taiwan, he had a studio. His work is not at home, he doesn't do any work at home, per se. Unless we go there, you know, we don't really see his early work. But after we moved to the US, we do see how he worked as textile artist and I think he picked up different technique and he grows and changes.
WL: He'll experiment with different things to come up with a new way to paint and new outlook. You know, when he got sick later on, he wanted us to keep his many envelopes of research for reference and we cruelly said no. Google was coming—
WL: We did research online. We don’t really need the paper anymore. Progress—
KA: He loved his collection.
WL: He loved his research because it took him so much time to collect. I have little sketches of copy that he did like, pencil drawings, you know, just before he started painting them.
KA: You spoke about him collaborating with your mother and the handwork. Do you want to talk about other artists or designers that he was collaborating with? Either in Taiwan or in the United States.
PL: Well, when he was in Taiwan, he worked in the studio. Did he hire people? I'm not sure.
WL: He hired people.
PL: He hired people to help him paint.
WL: Yeah, like to do a big project for his show. I don't know. I'm sure he has a network of friends. But in Taiwan, we didn't really see that much of who he worked with. The only thing I knew was the ceramic studio. That was before us. We weren't born. They worked with several friends that all came together, that are interested in ceramics. They kind of invested together. Xi Dejin was very famous one. Very famous in Taiwan. You can look him up. He does beautiful watercolor. That's his medium. I mean, beautiful Taiwan landscapes. Very well known. He has his own museum, I think.
KA: Oh wow.
WL: Yeah. He has a lot of other people that work with him who are passionate about art. Whether ceramic or painting, I think he collaborated with many different artists and designer. I remember he designed a set of modern furniture, table and chair, I don't know who built them for him, but his design was far reaching with vastly different medium.
PL: We just used the furniture for dirty clothes. [All laugh.]
KA: Oh no! You threw your dirty clothes on it?
WL: After the show, we kept the table and the chair at home. We just play on it. We don't think anything of it. You know, it's funny like how when I see how the museum cherish and take such care of his painting and I had some and I was like, oh, they are under my bed, wrapped up in a box. That's why we donated most of his work to the museum. We know we can’t take care of it.
PL: Oh yeah. They feared the way we handled it. If you hear my dad, he will say, "just roll it up."
WL: It's acrylic. It's okay. It's strong.
PL: I have one of the old Art Deco paintings and he goes, “color it!”
WL: Yeah, just redo it. No problem.
KA: He sounds like quite the character.
WL: He is a hoot. You would have loved him. He's just so funny. Very humorous. He made friends easily. Yeah. But he's very straightforward, and no ego. He tells it like it is.
PL: Where he stayed, like if you were a favorite, he'll just give away some sort of thing. Donate them. Yeah, no calm about it. Yeah. I think he enjoys it more when people see his work. You know? Not just money making, but he's like, "I want people to see things that I do everywhere."
KA: I love that. I have so many questions. Do you know a lot about his move sets? I did find a piece he painted of Anna May Wong, too. What works were his and what were they for?
WL: One movie is called Ja Sai Taipei (Taipei is Home).
PL: Let me see if I can Google it.
WL: There’s two movies then. I think the famous one was Ja Sai Taipei, no?
PL: In the sixties he did the whole set. Maybe that’s the one I remember. Oh, he is mentioned for art direction.
KA: For the whole film?
PL: Yeah. Lover’s Rock.
WL: Sometimes he design costume. Sometimes he did makeup. It’s just his vision of what beauty is and what looks good. He has no fear of saying, okay, you should wear your makeup like this.
KA: Oh wow. [All laugh.]
WL: Yeah. You know, when my parents got married, my dad designed the wedding dress and what he wore. My mom did nothing.
KA: I would love to see a photo of that.
WL: We do have it. You know, he coordinated and planned the whole wedding. My mom did nothing. Usually it’s the opposite. The bride who does more, right? But no, he was wearing Chinese clothes and she's wearing Western dress in the ceremony. And during reception, he was wearing suits and tie and she was wearing Chinese dress. So, in his mind, it's a melding of east and west. He liked the idea of mixing it up and he was never bound by tradition. He respected it but he had no problem breaking it.
WL: When he came to New York for the Expo in 1965, he brought back so many clothes for my mom from New York. He had her measurements. He doesn’t really speak English at the time, so he was just like measuring and draw picture to show the sales lady what he wants to buy.
KA: With a measuring tape? The clothes?
WL: Because he doesn’t know the sizes.
WL: At that time in Taiwan, there were no readymade clothes. Everything is custom. My mom either made our clothes or, or she went to her seamstress. She will pick out outfit from some Japanese clothing magazines, buy the fabric she wants, and the seamstress will make it for her.
WL: So with everything you know now, you think about it. Oh my god. Custom made for you. From the hat to the bag to even the shoes can be custom made. So, she always had a whole outfit.
KA: A full ensemble?
WL: Yeah, ensemble, you know? It’s amazing.
PL: Like fashion. My dad actually designed a whole set of clothes for us, and a fashion magazine shot it.
WL: Yeah, I remember that. So, you’ll see in the picture that I'm going to show you, we're always like, coordinated. Either my mom made them or tailored by a seamstress.
PL: You know what’s funny? In a way she didn't just make one design. It's like the same fabric, but a little bit different color.
WL: Or different fabrics. Same style, same silhouette, or different silhouette, same fabric. You know, it's always different, a bit more individual.
PL: There was the swimwear.
PL: For hers, I remember it had two holes or something. [Points to the waist.] I think because I was young, I need to go to bathroom real quick so I would have a button here.
KA: That so crafty. Did you ever wear his fabrics later? Did you ever wear any of his clothes he worked on?
KA: Oh, that’s right. You were teenagers by then.
WL: Yeah, we didn’t care.
WL: My mom sewed our cloth when we were young. She sewed most of our clothes. She’ll get fabric and sew our clothes because there’s nothing to buy. Nothing is readymade. She is more of that kind of seamstress. She’s very handy. She’s also a master knitter.
KA: Wow, I had no idea.
WL: So, they kind of differ, right? But they are in this similar kind of graphic design. She is more craft though.
KA: Oh interesting. Do you think that handwork and textile work would be considered more craft than design?
WL: Yeah, I would think more craft. The design was done by my dad and my mom kind of came up with it. except our clothes. She just makes it up. A lot of the time, he will do the sketch like, you want it this way, and then she’ll execute.
KA: Was it a good partnership?
WL: Well, they got divorced. [Winifred laughs.]
KA: Oh. I see. On the way over, we spoke a little bit about the Worlds Exhibition in Montreal. You said you might have a few pictures, as well?
WL: One, I think. One or two. I think one or two exhibitions. It's a picture from the second floor looking down where he did these giant butterflies that were hanging on the ceiling. It's like a beautiful Chinese textile, but very modern, in a way because it's like kind of decorative. When you walk underneath it, it is like Neiman Marcus. These are giant and colorful. I don't even know what's the material is, but it's fabric.
Butterfly installation designed by Wielin Liao, Canada '75. Photo courtesy Winifred Liao and Peggy Liao.
WL: 1970. No, 1976.
PL: No, we were here, right?
WL: ‘76? Something like that. I can show you later.
KA: I think we can go ahead and move inside, what do you both think?
KA: It’s 12:15. I’m going to stop the recording and we will pick it up shortly at a café nearby [Prince Tea House].
KA: Its 12:45 and I am still here with Winifred and Peggy Liao. We are currently flipping through some old photos of their father’s work.
WL: Here’s all the book illustrations and book cover.
WL: These he did when he was really young. I think in the fifties or sixties.
KA: Oh, so this is some earlier, younger work?
WL: Yes, he did a whole collection.
PL: A Chinese history collection.
WL: A historic story. It’s really fine. He was like, my eye was good then, but you can already see that he’s kind of textile focused.
WL: I don’t know what style you call this. Almost illustration.
KA: Yeah, you can really see that textile influence in the screens and the kimonos. It’s amazing to think these were done by hand, without photoshop or illustrator. They look so contemporary to me.
PL: He was big on detail. He was big on being correct. He’d see things and be like, that’s not right.
WL: In costume he would research—
PL:—and he’d say, that’s not that era.
WL: Or even in a movie he’d be like, the lighting is wrong, because one [light source] is from here and one is from there, you know? He can look at all the details. He would tell me, Look. That’s wrong. And I was like, nobody cares. They’re watching the movie.
PL: He sees it, you know. And it bothers him.
WL: You can see it. Look at all the patterns
and the texture he put into them. [Points to screen.]
PL: He did more—there is a famous medicine, and he would say, oh I did that person, [the image on the container]. It was an old lady that he changed to an old man. Talk about Photoshop, right?
WL: He’s like I did this, I did that—and we are like, what? How did you do so many different thing? Have no idea he was designing everything. It’s amazing. [Change to new folder.] This is all the book covers he did.
KA: Oh. Okay. I was looking for these, yes.
WL: In the sixties because of the makeup and all that. It’s like all very different, right?
PL: Journey to the West. Do you know that story? The monkey king.
KA: The monkey king? I don’t know that story.
WL: [Continues to flip through images.] It’s Goku. You know Goku, right?
KA: Dragon Ball Z?
WL: This older. Original story—[flips to new cover.]. And this is Jane Eyre.
KA: Oh yes. You can always tell by the hair that it’s Jane Eyre. [All laugh.]
PL: As I say because he does graphic design and, he saw the need of it and what to represent best. What it needs to be to represent it. But when people see it, they get different feedback.
WL: So, these are the children’s books. He did quite a few children’s book illustrations too. These are old. [All laugh.]
WL: He used a lot of different mediums. At one point he’s doing over size ultra-realistic painting then he changes. [Flips to slide with boat in bay of Hong Kong.]
PL: That is my favorite. You see it and you know it’s Hong Kong.
WL: [Flips to another book cover.] This is portrait of a very famous writer in Taiwan: Eileen Change. This is acrylic, realistic flower style, you know? Very Chinese style. Then he was into Matisse. He was looking at Matisse and he was like, oh, I like how simple and graphic—childlike. [Flips to another book cover.] He loved flowers. [Flips to another book cover.] That’s the cover of Year of the Tiger for his show. [Flips to another repeat floral that looks like Marimekko’s Poppy.]
KA: I was wondering about this one. In his later work, he seems to be drawing on a lot of pop culture like Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculpture and the reinterpretations of Marimekko flowers.
KA: He did quite a few of those then?
WL: A lot is lost, right? There is no record of it.
PL: He can say his work is everywhere.
WL: [Opens new folder with stamp designs.] So, these are the stamp designs he did.
KA: Those are gorgeous. That is not what I expected them to look like. So cool.
WL: I know. This is a collection of stamp for the whole twenty-four Filial piety story, and also the moon landing. [Continues to flip.] This is the Chinese fable one. [Continues to flip.] These are very, no communist and free China. And the Taiwan Independence Day celebration.
KA: I’m curious about something. You can feel free to not answer as well. How did your father feel about the communist regime and living in China during that time? WL: You know, he told me that if you're in your twenties you should be for communist. But when you're in your thirties, you should realize that communism does not work.
PL: The utopian idea.
WL: The idea of utopian, he says, is not real.
PL: It’s not real.
WL: It cannot be. He totally was not for it.
PL: I think my dad thought psychologically. Like that is just impossible. No one can create that. Something will go wrong in that.
WL: Because it's human, right? Human desire and human greed, especially in China. For 5,000 years people are used to having an emperor, to have a good ruler to tell them what to do. Communism required a lot of self-awareness that it's not realistic to think that Mao will be allowing this utopian society to survive without him being in control. My dad has the foresight to know that it’s not going to work, and he doesn't want to stay in China.
KA: It’s interesting that he was working on so many book covers. From what I understand, Mao was burning books and trying to remove certain books. Do you think the book covers were important to him? Do you think he was aware of what he was doing?
PL: I think so. I also think because what he does is like so not profitable back then, you know, I think he sees the two almost against each other.
KA: Art and communism?
PL: Yeah. I think there I something there and that he sees it.
WL: He's probably more for socialist. Not communist. And I don't think he could survive in China after communist took over. When China finally opened, he went back to find his family after like, forty years. He still had a brother and a sister living in Hunan. He went back two more times, and then didn’t want to go back anymore. Oh, that looks good not be I'm going to stop this—he went back two more times, and then didn't want to go back anymore. He's like I don't—he thinks the country is a mess. That was before China became so wealthy and economic booms and all that. He just was disappointed. It wasn't his China anymore. He just didn't feel like he wanted to be there.
PL: Like, people were so oppressed there. Like, what can I get? Like me? What can I get? Yeah, you know, what can I not do and still get? We have—they have a phrase going from the back door. That’s what people are thinking because they can get it. I remember he was talking about; you know, he stayed in a hotel or something. And he was in his seventies. No one was willing to carry his luggage upstairs. Because if you do that, everybody else will think oh, he must give you something. You know?
WL: Let’s stop and eat. This is a bigger conversation.
KA: Yes okay. This is great.
KA: Okay, it is now one o'clock and I'm still here with Peggy and Winifred. Did he have a classical understanding of modernism when he was working? What did he think of modernism? How did he interpret it?
WL: I think it influenced him. He studied all kinds of works from old master to modern. I mean, there are things he told me he just doesn't understand, like Dali—but he like Matisse, he would critique what they did but he also finds them interesting because of the shape or how they see things. But then he also liked the old masters. He is really into detail. From his perspective, I think they are all art, but as things that he can reinterpret and take and learn from rather than say, I'm going to follow this aesthetic or I'm going to be impressionist, I'm going to be modernist. I’m going to be old school art. He's doing what he feels is right at the moment. I don't see him as a specific, you know, just looking at his painting. He's, like, all over the place. Like, he doesn't follow one trend or the other or one style or the other. He has his own style. Yeah. Each period influenced him. But not defied his work.
KA: I see.
WL: Sometimes it's just because at that period, maybe he sees the trend of what people are doing, or he likes what is going on, he stays current and commercial. He gets the influence from fashion, politics, movies, from everything. I feel like he takes on what he thinks the world is right now and he spins it. He understands the market and what do people want, what do they want to see? I feel like that's where his driver is: he will take pieces from everywhere and use it.
PL: To me, I think those terms are for people who want to categorize so they can have a better understanding to explain it. Like oh, when you say, oh, yeah, like Art Deco? What is that? Right? Oh, decorative art? But when I say think of what's that guy? Like very graphics. So, I think for him it’s like anything, anything is art, right? Like he sees the beauty of modernism, traditional, whatever. You name it and he does a take on it.
WL: Chinese art, fashion. I think he tries to absorb what he likes and use them.
KA: Did living in the United States change his work?
WL: Absolutely. How could it not? It opened his eyes really.
PL: Especially doing textile. His paintings are more confined, like very fine detail. But I think when he did textiles, he had to free himself to a brand-new medium, very free brushstrokes and open up so much for him. You see his later work is so much more textile influenced.
KA: Yes. In his later paintings he continues to mirror things and play with half-drop repeats.
WL: Because there is so much more here. The museum, the information, the artists. It's a much bigger world, right? It's a bigger playground. Taiwan is more controlled and smaller. He's a big fish in a small pond there. Here, he is the small fish.
WL: He has so much more available for him to see because he absorbs so much from everywhere that allowed him to studies to reinvent. New York is full of art and design in everything and everywhere. In Taiwan, at the time before we left, commercial design wasn’t that important. Here, he got freedom to do what he wants. I mean, of course, textiles help him make a living. But he can see different museums, different artists from different parts of the world. Even artist from China who he would have never meet if he was in Taiwan, right? Artists from China, artists from different countries. so definitely, it changed him.
PL: This is one of his friends—
WL: That’s Xi Dejin.
PL: Even his painting changed.
KA: A Chinese modernist artist? How did they meet?
WL: They went to school together, right? They were in the university during the war. He’s very talented, too.
PL: His passion is very different from my dad., He's a fine artist, he is willing to suffer. He traveled. He went to Paris. He did street art. He's willing to sacrifice to be a fine art artist.
KA: It seems like your father was fine straddling between fine and commercial art.
WL: Dad had a family to support. He’s always using whatever he can to make a living.
KA: How would they define art?
PL: I think their idea of art is a little different. Like my dad says he sees everything, and he want to put it in everything. And for Xi, he has to do fine art, one hundred percent.
WL: Yeah. He’s a fine artist.
PL: I must do fine art. I can’t be commercial.
WL: No, I didn't want to leave at first. Yeah, I don't want to come here. It was like, I have friends in Taiwan. Well, I was sixteen and I didn’t want to change. But at that time, it was very unstable between Taiwan and China. There was a lot of war talk, right? We got the opportunity to come here. My mother's older brother is a teaching professor at Iowa University. He was able to sponsor us so, we came.
PL: I think my dad wasn't making it in Taiwan, so to speak—
WL: He was struggling.
PL: He was not recognized as a commercial artist. People were kind of like poo-poo-ey, it's graphic art. Okay, we don’t need it. You know? I think when he came, it's like, doors just opened for him. And people really appreciate him.
PL: He became more of a treasure than when he was in Taiwan. You know, even though he did so many things.
WL: He was having a hard time making a living. Here, he can make a living easy, like, you know, a textiles artist. He was doing everything in Taiwan, yet he was still struggling. He's trying to make sure that he can support the family. So, we came, I was not happy, but I appreciated it so much more as I got older than when I was living through it as a teenager. You know, going to high school here was a struggle at first. It was difficult to adjust. The language barrier was tough at first, But I think within six months, we were talking in English, we were okay, we were still young. But you know, New York was a completely different world from Taiwan and it’s a shock to all of our system, parent and children.
PL: You’re a teenager, you know? What can you think about? Me. Why do I have to come here? It was good for us in so many ways. In so many, many, many ways I would say that.
WL: We will not have the opportunity we have [here], in Taiwan. I don't think I would have done what I've done if I stayed. Because I've seen a lot of my friends and I understand what a incredible opportunity was offered me coming to US. Maybe, now the new generation of women in Taiwan has more opportunity. But for my generation, it was much more limited.
PL: And I think also, the mentality was so different back then, like, if you if you look at my mom and her generation of women, they don't do a lot. They're not that independent, so to speak. You know? And so, a lot of the time, they don't really think for themselves? Or have an idea? To be more self-sufficient, in a sense. Even if they are very capable.
WL: My mom is a tough woman. She is very smart.
PL: She was the one.
WL: She flourished here—she speaks well and communicate well in English.
PL: She had to speak up and do more here, in Taiwan, she was just a stay-at-home housewife.
WL: In Taiwan women of her generation don't work. It's looked down upon when the wife had to work. Why does your wife have to work? You know, and my dad, none of his friends’ wives work, maybe one or two.
PL: I mean it’s okay but if your mentality is like that—so when we come, guess what? Everybody—
WL: Everybody must contribute.
PL: You must work. You know? and I think that we became that. We stopped thinking, oh I can’t do that. My dad was never that way, that's the thing. My dad was very forward thinking.
WL: He’s very progressive.
PL: Most of his friends wanted to have boys, to carry the family name and take care of them when they are old! But my dad was like, I'm happy with my girls. Especially when he got old, and we all went to see him. He's like, see?
WL: Girls take care of me. [All laugh.]
PL: Where's the son? The son? Yeah, it's like they promote that. Right? The son doesn't care. And he thinks we can do whatever we want.
KA: It sounds like he encouraged you—
PL: Yeah, he did.
KA: Can you tell me how he influenced you or the work you both do now?
WL: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, when we were growing up, we thought everybody’s parent draws. It's a normal thing. You have nothing to do? You draw. You sit down and you draw. You know, you play with cut out Barbie doll clothes and you make the clothes.
PL: My mom says she never had too many problems with us being bored. She’d say, here’s some pen and paper.
WL: Paper, crayon, you draw. You know? So, we think everyone does it. So, what he does and how we live gave us the foundation. Growing up around art and beautiful things, hearing conversation about design. You learn to appreciate and absorb naturally this life with art.
PL: And I think because my dad overcame his own struggle of not being what his parents wanted him to be. But what he in his heart desired. And he said, hey I did it.
WL: I'm sure if I told him I want to be an accountant, he will be like, okay, go ahead. Do what you want. You don't have to be artists.
PL: It’s not about the thing but the desire and that you fulfill your desire. That for him, I think that was the biggest thing. Yeah. Like, when I tell people about how forward thinking my dad is, they’re all like, oh, really? Because for Chinese—forget about it. You know, for Asian parent the career choice is doctor or lawyer.
KA: Do you remember him ever receiving any pushback? Maybe any professional pushback?
WL: Not really. But he stayed with textiles.
PL: I think he got more pushback in Taiwan. Like not being called an artist.
WL: And then later on, they say, he’s too old. That is why he left Taiwan at age fifty.
PL: Right. And then when he went back, because he’s from America, like, I think he thought that, oh, now, I finally made it, because I went out. Right? I was there. And I did so many things. They were like, here do this, It was hard not being treated as something that you need to, you know, be precious. Like, an artist.
KA: Why did he stay in textiles?
WL: I think he stayed in textile, because his limited by the language. I think a lot of time, he could not go further because he could not communicate well enough. You know, if he had come younger, it would have been different. I think he would have more opportunity. Looking back, He was very brave, you know, at fifty years old, he uprooted all of us. We didn't have much money, they sold our house in Taiwan—
PL: So we have money to come here—
WL: —like $3,000 dollars! It wasn't a lot of money even for 1975. He just came and got a job and started working. He always made it work. I think his life experience tells him that it'll be okay. He can make it work, right? Because it always worked for him at fourteen or fifty. He has confidence that it will be fine. But still, it took a lot of courage to say, okay, I'm going to uproot everybody to a country that I don't speak the language. He thought it will be better for us as well, and he was right.
WL: Because we hated school in Taiwan. All three of us. We were not good at school each in our own way of bad—into college, you must pass the entrance examination. It's all about test scores. So, from fifth grads to twelfth grads basically its cram school every day. And he understood the pain of studying without passion. So, it's like, come to US, more freedom. You're allowed to do things your love. And you can find your own destiny. Instead of having only one path in Taiwan, he opened the door for us.
PL: Another thing, he never really cared if we got a diploma.
PL: For him, you can’t do anything with a piece of paper. It’s another realistic, logical thinking on his part. The Chinese or Asian culture are so much about "you got to get a degree and you got to get the diploma and then you come to America an become dishwasher.”
KA: Oh no.
PL: Like that, right? Like master’s degree, they got this degree, and they do—taxi driver and they never did anything about it and my dad was the opposite. He really had something so he's able to be a painter.
WL: Yeah. So. He not only influence us with his art but more with his outlook toward life.
PL: Forward thinking.
WL: I mean, he is so progressive in my mind. You know, when he was eighty-two, he moved back to Taiwan.
KA: Oh? Why?
WL: He retired when he was seventy or sixty-seven maybe. He moved to California. My older sister lives in California. So, he's like the weather and he decided to give it a try. New York weather was too hard for his asthma in the winter. So he moved to California and he started painting there. He had an art gallery friend that sponsored him and then put his painting up to sale. He was there for about ten years. Then his health deteriorated in his eighties. He was tired of LA.
PL: He doesn’t drive so it’s hard for him to rely on people—
WL: to get around—
PL: —And he liked to get about. And you can’t do that. It’s hard in LA. In Taiwan, many of his old buddies are all there. He was freer to do what he liked with his friend.
WL: Again, very strong willed, independent, and very brave. I'm not going to rely on my children, I'm going to go back to Taiwan. He researched and found the nursing home he liked; it was a very good facility, it’s in the suburbs of Taipei, surrounded by beautiful mountains. Kind staff with well managed environment and most important, food they served was good. So, he moved himself back home, to Taiwan.
WL: I don't know if I can do that when I'm eighty-two. So again, what I most admire about him is when he decided to do something, he researched, and he go for it.
PL: He doesn't complain. Like, “I'm not doing anything,” he just does it. He just, you know, he just does something about it.
KA: Were you able to visit him?
PL: Oh, yeah.
Liao surrounded by family at his final exhibition Wei Lin Liao Retrospective 88 held at the National Museum of HIstory, Taiwan, 2010. Photo courtesy Winifred Liao and Peggy Liao.
WL: We were there
KA: You were there?
KA: What was that like? What was it like seeing your dad's work all together? It wasn’t necessarily made for a museum but now you are looking at it in this context. How was that?
PL: I think it's more like I'm seeing him through other people’s eyes. I feel like he was being recognized at a place where they didn't recognize him before. I think it was happy. I think we have a picture of that.
WL: Yeah. So, for the art show, his goal was to do one hundred paintings. Very ambitious. Then he got sick and he could not get to one hundred paintings, but they combined the old work, the graphic, and then put it all together as a one man show like his retrospective, when he was eighty-eight years old. Lucky number.
KA: Ah. So that’s why it was “88”?
WL: Yeah. So, it was great for him because it’s like the last thing on his bucket list. Right? And he got to see some of his old artworks, like visiting long lost old friend. For him, yeah, it was great.
Book cover and stamp designs from Wei Lin Liao Retrospective 88 held at the National Museum of History, Taiwan, 2010. Photo courtesy Winifred Liao and Peggy Liao.
Liao giving remarks at Wei Lin Liao Retrospective 88 held at the National Museum of HIstory, Taiwan, 2010. Photo courtesy Winifred Liao and Peggy Liao.
PL: Like I said, he wanted his work everywhere. And on everything. You know, not just—
WL: He loved when people appreciated what he does, I love this painting. That’s just making him feel so joyful. Someone really liked this enough to buy it or to enjoy it! It’s that simple and that’s who he is.
PL: I would say he enjoyed painting so much, he actually wanted people to do it. In his later years, he couldn't paint. His handshake and he could not hold the paint brush well so he started teaching. He had a couple who was learning from him. And he was just overjoyed that someone wants to do what he loves to do. You know, his student loved to learn from him. And so he loved watching them paint. You know, it is not just oh, I'm a famous artist. That's why he wanted to save all these references for people.
WL: The references were more important to him than his real paintings. I’m like, where you put your painting and he says, oh it’s in the closet.
PL: We donated all his work to Taiwan National Museum in Tai Nang. When they came to collect his painting from us. They see how we stacked the painting in the closet. [Peggy gasps.] And the guy was like oh god. And when he's done painting—
WL: He’s done.
PL: Like, he got out of that what he needed. He was like, now I can do the next one.
PL: There are more coming.
KA: I have one more question. I found this like beautiful thing that he said. He was quoted by the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts: “Art design is a silent language, borderless and the most free.”
WL: Mmm, beautiful.
KA: How do you feel about that quote?
WL: Yes. That’s who he is. So proud of him. Here is the whole quote. “I don’t belong to any art society or style, I am myself. I don’t follow any rules and I am not limited by any tools. I express what I think is beautiful and good. To me, there is no new or old, modern, or traditional. Art is cyclical and never ending, only time can tell if it’s good or bad. I don’t think I am Eastern or Western. Art and design is a silent language, borderless and the most free. I absorb, I digest, and I present to you my colorful world.”
PL: And I think—do you have the little magazine, that one of the art exhibitions—
WL: Yeah, I scanned it for her.
PL: I think in that, he says art is timeless?
PL: A good art is timeless. There's no time period. If it’s good, it will last. The beauty will last forever. I'll say that's true. So as I say, he, to me, in my mind, is a true artist. He sees beauty everywhere.
WL: And when he paints, it's like a meditation to him. He's in a completely different world and in a different zone, on his own. He's just, he's just living at that moment. And he's like, I remember him telling me he had asthma. He's like, you know, when I paint? I don't have asthma. It's gone. I don't know where it is. I can breathe well, and he's just in his own zone, in his own space. That's why he cannot stop painting. He's had to do it since he was five, you know? It is who he is.
PL: I remember we went to see a movie about this Russian artist, and he had to paint. So he paint everywhere. I can see my dad like that. It's something like, if I don't do that I'll die.
PL: Yeah—like there's a—I got to get it out. I think he way he sees something, he's got to put it on paper and that to him a very satisfying. He can't help it. We want to show her a little bit of the PowerPoint because like when he passed, I did a PowerPoint. So, it's like his old pictures, things that he had done, you know, acting and—
WL: These are the textiles.
PL: Oh, yeah.
KA: You know, I think this is a beautiful place to wrap. I would love to see more work of his. Thank you so much for this.
WL: Thank you.
[End of interview]