Yi Kai was born in 1955 in Changsha, China. When he was 11 his father, a government official, was sent to work on a farm as part of China’s Cultural. His mother, a teacher, was also sent away, leaving Yi and his ten-year old brother to fend for themselves for over three years. He finished middle school in 1970 and at 15 he was drafted into the army where he spent the next 14 years.
While driving around to the small village showing propaganda movies to PLA soldiers, Yi Kai studied books and magazine and taught himself to draw and paint. In 1979, the Art Institute of the PLA in Beijing reopened with 4,000 applicants vying for a limited number of spots. Mr. Kai gained entrance with the honor of being the only applicant to receive acceptance votes from all judges.
He studied traditional Chinese ink painting and Western-style drawing and painting, earning at BA and a MA. He was even allowed to show and sell his paintings in Taiwan. The boldly colorful acrylic abstracts, which are his signature, are a world away from the duller figurative paintings of ethnic minorities hew of his past. But those served their purpose. First of all they informed Mr. Kai’s sense of how blocks of color work on canvas, and secondly — and most importantly – they were his ticket out of China.
In 1990 Yi Kai received an invitation to visit from an arts and humanitarian organization in Minnesota. He managed to get an exit visa to what has, in the past 10 years, become his home.
His real artistic thrill since arriving in the US has been learning different ways of using color – and having newer and better materials to work with. “In China, the tradition is all about ink and black and white. I have been so excited to learn about color in the US,” he says. Twenty-five years later, he is still obsessed with the notion of blatant symbolism that transcends nationalism or politics. His work has become very abstract, which he says is rather like the natural progression of Chinese calligraphy. His work includes hints of flags, tiny parts of Chinese writing, English words and scientific and mystical symbols. “I like to mix together symbols to show that differences don’t have to mean war. If you know each other there will be no fighting,” he says.
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