Painting in the Garden, 2020
Materials: oil and acrylic on canvas, 36” x 44”
Location at Summa: Dr. Gary B. and Pamela S. Williams Tower on the Akron Campus (141 N. Forge St.), fourth floor hallway outside patient rooms H4-105 and H4-106
About the art and artist:
This portrait was painted from a small, black-and-white photograph that artist Michelle Zhang used as a point of departure not only for this work but also as part of a deeper investigation into her family history. She sought out family photos and queried family members about them in order to learn about their lives, and so too about herself as a first-generation American. She reports that the idea for this kind of investigation came to her from reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. The result of this exploration was a series of paintings shown at the end of her senior year, where Summa Curator Meg Stanton first saw this work and knew it belonged in the Summa Collection.
In this work, Zhang’s great-grandfather appears on the right, posing with three of his granddaughters. These are the artist’s mother -- the laughing toddler on the left -- and her aunts, the toddler’s two older sisters. The artist has chosen to depict the youngest children in bright, rose/pink clothing, while the deeper hues of great-grandfather’s jacket and cap, as well as his greater size, anchor the composition. Cast shadows on faces and elsewhere indicate that this was a sunny day. Garments, gestures, and expressions are worked in detail, while the garden setting is slightly blurred by vigorous brushwork, a contrast that creates a timelessness background for a multi-generational family portrait captured in happy circumstances.
After her parents emigrated from China to attend college, Michelle Zhang was born in New York City and has lived in Cleveland since she was about five. She describes her parents as hard-working and always holding high aspirations for their children, whom they encouraged to be equally diligent in their own studies. As she uncovered more about her family and its history, the artist came to understand how such ideas as respect for elders and filial duty had shaped her own story. In this painting she has transformed a small, personal snapshot into an even more enduring celebration of specific culture and values.
Where you can see more of this artist’s work:
Michelle Zhang was just about to graduate from Lake Ridge Academy’s School of Fine Arts when she made this painting, so she is at the beginning of her journey as an artist. Nevertheless, she has already been recognized nationally by winning a gold medal and an American Vision award in the 2020 Scholastic Art and Writing competition for several of her high school paintings. Later that year she enrolled as an undergraduate at Tufts University, and now she posts regularly on Instagram using the handle @mimistara.
For other works in the Summa Collection that focus on families, see the online catalogue entry for Darius Steward, Bellamy Printz and Shane Wynn.