Vancouver artist Leanne Lai Hildebrand doesn’t think of herself as a painter. However, she is still able to create colourful and evocative landscapes and flower scenes through a 1,000-year-old Japanese art form called chigiri-e. And her pieces certainly look like watercolours.
In an interview with Pancouver, Lai Hildebrand explains that in Japanese, chigiri means “torn paper” and the e at the end refers to “painting”. So it literally translates to torn-paper painting.
In her practice, the Taiwanese-born artist tears hand-dyed and extremely thin washi paper into shapes. Then, she assembles them on a canvas.
“If you want to make flowers or you want to make a landscape, it’s not too complicated,” Lai Hildebrand says with a touch of modesty.
Lai Hildebrand’s impressive chigiri-e artworks are featured in her solo Pendulum Gallery exhibition, Chigiri-e: The Language of Paper. Several pieces appear on large lanterns, which are suspended inside the free downtown Vancouver gallery at 885 West Georgia Street.
“It’s all done with torn paper—no scissors!” Lai Hildebrand says.
Chigiri-e: The Language of Paper is part of The Lantern City’s Lunar New Year celebrations. To welcome the Year of the Dragon, there are also lantern exhibitions at Jack Poole Plaza, Granville Island, and šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square (north of the Vancouver Art Gallery).
This is not Lai Hildebrand’s first chigiri-e exhibition. In the past, she has displayed her art in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, as well as at Vancouver’s VanDusen Garden and three Harmony Arts Festivals in West Vancouver.
In addition, Lai Hildebrand has taught chigiri-e classes, including at Japanese Paper Place in Toronto.
“They’ve been there for 40 years,” Lai Hildebrand says. “They sell all the washi from Japan—and they are experts.”
Chigiri-e sets Lai Hildebrand free
She didn’t set out to be a chigiri-e artist when she was growing up in the southern Taiwanese city of Pingtung. Her parents enrolled her in classical piano in a special school after junior high.
“My parents wanted me to have a better life,” Lai Hildebrand says.
In her older teenage years, she had to live in a dormitory. She spent five days a week practising intensely—and it wasn’t easy.
“If you played one note that’s wrong, people will judge you,” Lai Hildebrand says.
In those days, she would pass through the art department where she saw students having fun. They seemed so free in comparison to the piano students.
“I always felt they could do whatever they want,” she recalls. “I felt that’s something I didn’t have.”
Lai Hildebrand went on to become a piano teacher and she found a good man to marry. He’s a Canadian, Clifford Hildebrand.
“He went to Taiwan to teach at a university,” she reveals. “I met him at church.”
After their marriage, Lai Hildebrand wanted to take a break from teaching piano. So, she looked for something else to do for fun. She tried wood painting, Chinese calligraphy, and even sewing. Then, one of her students mentioned that her sister-in-law taught a Japanese artform called chigiri-e.
“I had never heard of that before,” Lai Hildebrand says.
She brought her nephew along to the classes and he remained for almost a year before he became bored. Lai Hildebrand continued studying chigiri-e for 13 years in Taiwan before moving to Vancouver with her husband in 2013. This year, they will celebrate their 24th anniversary.
“He’s my biggest supporter,” Lai Hildebrand says.
Papering over chigiri-e mistakes
After arriving in Canada, Lai Hildebrand didn’t think that she could continue teaching piano because English is not her first language. Her husband, now a high school teacher, encouraged her to do what made her happy. As a result, Lai Hildebrand continued creating chigiri-e works of art in her adopted country.
“When I started this type of art, I just kept doing it because I like it,” she says.
However, years later when she examined early pieces, she didn’t like certain aspects. So, Lai Hildebrand made adjustments by placing new pieces of torn coloured paper on the canvases.
That’s not so easily accomplished with a watercolour painting. To her, this act of redoing her chigiri-e artwork represents forgiveness. And she’s a big supporter of forgiveness, suggesting that everyone can benefit from doing this.
When Lai Hildebrand used to make a mistake as a piano student, this error would be highlighted and emphasized. With chigiri-e, on the other hand, it can simply be papered over. She can do whatever she wants now because she’s free.
“Before my life here, expectations had painted me as a certain type of person,” Lai Hildebrand states on The Lantern City website. “I was a musician, and life was as clear as the piano keyboard: what should and shouldn’t be, the rights and the wrongs, the black and the white.
“After starting my life here, I began to create the person I wanted to be,” she continues. “I am a Chigiri-e artist. I tore down my carefully presented appearance, and destroyed the expectations placed upon me! I glued myself back together with courage, and broke through my imagination!”
The Lantern City and the Pendulum Gallery (885 West Georgia Street) are co-presenting Leanne Lai Hildebrand’s exhibition, Chigiri-e: The Language of Paper, from February 5 until March 1. For more information, visit The Lantern City website.