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Yani's monkeys: lessons in form and freedom.

Wang Yani is an amazingly gifted Chinese child prodigy. You may have seen her on national news, or perhaps her painting of two cats on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine in September, 1989. She is now fourteen and has been painting since she was two and a half years old, with incredible skill and vitality. By the age of six years, Yani had produced four thousand paintings. Her work has been exhibited throughout Asia as well as in Germany, England and the United States.

Yani and her father often visited the zoo and upon their return, Yani would paint and tell stories in her pictures about the animals. Her observations and fantasies would unravel into beautiful, spontaneous paintings. She was particularly enchanted with monkeys. When she was six, her father bought her a monkey so she could see it more closely--its form, movements and personality.

The Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC hosted an exhibition of Yani's work and produced a book from the exhibition, Yani, The Brush of Innocence. From it I took slides to show my students. The children were truly enthralled with her paintings. I used Yani's paintings as examples of several art concepts, such as the use of space. Yani's compositions fill the paper in a very non-western way. Her forms extend powerfully from the top to the bottom of the paper or sometimes seem to dance right across the page. Her forms overlap with grace. The forms in the background are often lighter to suggest distance. Much of her style is rooted in traditional Chinese painting with the use of bamboo brushes and ink sticks. My third graders study Japan and Japanese art. Yani's paintings reinforced their appreciation of Oriental art.

Another important concept that Yani's paintings illustrate is the role of self-expression and personal narrative or storytelling in one's artwork. Children are naturals at this kind of expression and "monkey pictures" can be great vehicles for such storytelling. Monkeys can be quite bold, silly, amusing and mischievous!

I told the students they would be asked to draw a picture of a monkey or a group of monkeys which told a story. We had fun brainstorming various settings and scenarios for man keys. Before we began, I encouraged the children to walk like monkeys!"--Bend knees and elbows, saying 'oo oo oo'! Demonstrate the many angles the arms and legs can take. The tail is a curved line. What fun!" Using this approach made the monkey's form wonderfully understandable to the students and, therefore, more easily interpreted for their own expression.

We also talked about monkey profiles as well as all the possible variations of movement, and pictures of Yani's monkeys encouraged possible variations. One might find further examples of monkeys in a National Geographic video or one might even bring in a real (caged) monkey! Also, students might view Yani's paintings prior to a zoo or aquarium trip. Upon their return, ask students to draw the animals using their imaginations. Works by Rousseau can be used as inspiration for a jungle picture or mural. One could use a variety of media for all of these projects, including Sumi paint kits.

There are many other avenues one could take using Yani's paintings as motivators. I felt they should be regarded as "Master Works" alongside artists such as Albrecht Durer. How nice that she is a child as well!

Shawn Costello teaches art in the Howard County Public Schools, Ellicott City, Maryland.
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Title Annotation:Wang Yani, Chinese child prodigy
Author:Costello, Shawn
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1990
Words:575
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