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November 29, 2007
Cao Yong: Being an artist is my fate

His long, arduous journey took him from Tibet where he learned how to express his artist's soul, to the United States, where he created his inspiring "Freedom". Cao Yong's dedication to art, his spiritual and interpretive view of the beauty and tragedy of the world have brought him to a place of prominence in the realm of impressionist painters. He's been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Leadership Foundation of the U.S.. He was the fourth person of Chinese origin to win the honor. The others are action movie star Jackie Chan, renowned forensic analyst Dr. Henry Lee and Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Chinese people know Cao Yong from his oil painting "Cheer, Tibet". The 23 people depicted there are art-lovers who gathered in Tibet in the 1980s. In the solemn work, one person seated on the floor seems out of place in the sacred ambience. That was Cao Yong.

Cao said, "I was assigned to be assistant professor of Art at the University of Tibet. But my real interest lies in Tibet's history, culture and nature."

During his seven years in Tibet, Cao Yong immersed himself in the spare beauty of the remote and isolated land. He embraced the distinctive Tibetan culture. In order to copy the remains of ancient Tibetan wall paintings, Cao Yong, accompanied only by a horse and a hunting gun, lived alone like a primitive, in mountain caves for nearly a year.

Cao said, "My experience in Tibet is like a whiff of life for me. Sometimes, when we want to go deep into something's essence and verity, we need to fully devoted ourselves to it. And the devotion sometimes starts with a tough situation. And only in that situation, you can realize its profundity."

His legendary adventure endowed him with a deep understanding of the connection between Man and Nature, as well as between the secular and spiritual. The result can be seen in his remarkable series "The Split Layer of Earth: Mount Kailas".

Life presents opportunities and challenges. His chance encounter with a Japanese girl led Cao Yong to love and to a neighbouring country which he described as the gate to the mundane world.

"I felt like a chimpanzee coming to the city. The stimulus of the fast-paced living conditions made me feel like I was living on Mars," said Cao.

Despite frustrations, Cao Yong became a famous muralist. He was extolled by the Japanese press as "a genius" upon completion of several monumental dragon murals.

Then goaded by the saying "second-class painters stay in Japan. First-class painters go to America", Cao Yong emigrated to the United States.

The period that followed witnessed a tidal shift in Cao Yong's painting style. Compared with his Tibetan paintings, which are full of malaise, struggle and despair, his newer paintings evoked a sense of timeless romance amid the beauty that surrounds us all.

The change may easily be understood.. Someone who can survive in the no man's land of Tibet, the Roof of the World, has a strong sense of who he is and an instinct for survival.

Cao said, "I knew many Chinese painters who came here to pursue their dreams of art. No doubt, they're full of aspiration and ambition. No one was here to spend a cozy life. So you can think the competition."

Despite the criticism that his paintings cater to the vulgar taste, and as raffish as candy coating, Cao Yong's paintings proved a huge commercial success. His paintings sell in over 300 galleries around the world. He is the most famous Chinese-American painter in the United States.

Cao said, "I see the copy of my 'Power Street'. It's really interesting. Seeing my painting being copied by others, I feel happier than selling my own paintings. I'm glad that my paintings can give inspiration and earn money for those painters, who still can't establish their own fame."

Cao Yong's career culminated in the propagandistic painting "Freedom", inspired by events now known globally at 9/11. The collage of landmark statues and inspirational moments in American history spoke to many. The painting took on symbolic significance and was exhibited around the country.

Cao said, "The dual towers have special meanings for me. I visited it when I lived in New York. It's the vertices of the New York. For me, to some extent, when I saw the sunset on it, I can connect it with the Himalayas. It reminds me of Tibet, which is a great consolation for me."

"At this moment when the airplane broke into the towers, my heart was truly stricken. The loss of stroke trade, or my unease and antipathy for the modern metropolis seem insignificant. I found there is already an inseparable bond between the city and me. It's just like the annual ring of a tree, which is inerasable."

Cao Yong's following work "We the People", was commissioned for the front cover of a booklet containing the United States Constitution.

After 12 years of struggle, as a freelance painter, Cao Yong earned the recognition of mainstream society and became a monumental commercial success.

Now Cao Yong is back to China. He's opened an art gallery in Beijing. He hopes more Chinese people will come there to appreciate his paintings. He also created the painting, temporarily titled "China" as a tribute to his motherland. The grand work captures well-known architecture and cultural relics of China.

Cao said, "Tibet was where I found my spirituality. Then in Japan there came my entrance into the modern society, and it's like a metamorphosis. My experiences in the US were an expression of my life. And back to China, I feel I'm reincarnated."

While in the past, he vented great pain and anger on canvas solely for self expression, today Cao Yong has found freedom and the inner peace that accompanies it. He is eager to share it with others. To Cao Yong, there is no greater reward than being able to bring people to beauty, joy and love as he experiences from his heart and through his paintings.

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