Amityville artist is drawing a new life
Related mediaDrawn to a new life
The lines flow easily from Vivian Chen's pencil, forming rich, detailed images that bespeak a formidable artistic talent. Now she sketches for hours at a time, filling her boyfriend's house in Copiague with a gallery of portraits that look exhibit-ready.
It only took about 30 years for Chen to emerge.
For decades, Chen's artistic drive was stifled. Why that happened and how she was able to finally tap into her talent is, in part, a story of two cultures and two men, each of whom wanted the best for her but had different views on what that meant.
Chen, 43, always felt the urge to draw. But what she wanted was not what her father expected, and in her traditional Chinese family in Taiwan, a father's word was law. So when Chen was a teenager and expressed interest in attending art school, her father's swift and unconditional rejection of that idea meant that the subject was closed.
"He said 'no way,' " recalled Chen, whose Chinese name is Hsaio Hui (pronounced schow-hway) Chen. "I always followed his ideas, because he was very strict. Yes, it made me feel sad, but I couldn't fight my father."
Such total patriarchal power is not unusual. "This is very much part of the culture in a traditional Chinese family," said anthropologist Sharon Carstens, director of the Institute for Asian Studies at Portland State University in Oregon. "The father is the family head and in a position to know better because of his age and experience, so young people are expected to listen."
Indeed, the dutiful daughter did what her father wanted: She attended business school. After a few years working in the family's wholesale jewelry business in Taiwan after graduation, she decided to become a teacher -- unlike an artist, considered an honorable pursuit, especially for a female.
But she never ended up teaching, either. A job opportunity in an import/export company based at Kennedy Airport beckoned, and Chen, who lives in Amityville, has worked there ever since. The long commute back and forth eventually made her question her decision.
"I wanted to change my field," she said. "But I work long hours, and I'd come home and I was so tired I never took any action."
The commute also resulted in some neck discomfort, which led her, in the summer of 2010, to Copiague chiropractor Greg Buzzell. Over adjustments and treatments, Buzzell asked the question he asks many of his patients. "I said, 'Tell me what you would do with your life if money wasn't an object.' Vivian didn't hesitate. She said, 'I would sketch all day.' "
Chen went on to explain to Buzzell how she had acceded to her father's wishes not to study art. He decided to offer her something that Chen seemingly never had: encouragement. The next time she came in, he handed her a pencil and a piece of paper from his office photocopier. "Draw something," he said.
Two days later she came back with a beautifully rendered sketch of a decorative flower arrangement in his office.
Buzzell was dumbfounded. He'd expected passable, not Picasso. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding me!' " he recalls. "People . . . even people who can draw . . . don't draw like that!"
At Buzzell's urging, Chen began to make time on weekends to sketch. It was as if a sputtering modem connection was replaced with fiber-optic cable: The images spewed out.
Since late 2010 Chen has produced about 15 completed drawings as well as sketchbooks full of ideas. "I don't even feel my hand I'm so focused," she said. "You are in a different world."
What Chen has produced is good enough that the local art world may soon notice.
"The extreme details are what hit you at first," noted Lynch, of the Nassau Museum of Art, who viewed some of Chen's drawings at Newsday's request. "I can also see from these the dedication to her practice. It's not easy to sit down and draw something so realistically. I can also see that she's building and honing her skills with each successive drawing. That's impressive to me."
Lynch considers Chen's talent such that there's a "very good chance she could parlay her skills into a life in the arts."
Hearing this assessment of her work, Chen giggles with embarrassment, and an "I'm not worthy" shake of her head. Now her boyfriend -- "the encouragement came first, the relationship came later" -- Buzzell smiles proudly as he watches her sketch.
Ready for classes, exhibits
Chen plans to finally take some formal classes this fall. She's also beginning to network with other local artists and hopes to find a space to exhibit her drawings, which are mostly renderings of images she has seen around her or -- as in the case with her stunning Elizabeth Taylor portrait -- in magazines.
Chen's father is not alive to see any of this; he died in 2005. She holds no anger toward him, something that Carstens, an expert in Chinese family structures, understands.
"Her father was only doing what he thought was best for her," Carstens said. "This was not a personal decision, but one that fit in with his role as a father. This is why she then does not hold a personal grudge against him."
Chen's mother, however, still lives in Taiwan. Recently, Chen said, she sent her mother a few copies of her drawings.
"She said, 'Wow, I never knew you could draw!' "