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Chinese Lion Dances: Wan Hoi Lee’s #ArtStory

May 18, 2015
Inspired by the National Endowment for the Arts’ 50th Anniversary call for #ArtStories, we will be posting some of our favorite student stories from the CHAW e-newsletter.  This month we are featuring Wan, a fixture of the Wednesday Morning crowd in teaching artist Ellen Cornett’s class, who has been a treasured part of our CHAW community for years.  Ellen wrote to us recently to let us know how “pleased and proud” she is that Wan has not only been juried into the Potomac Valley Watercolor Society, but also was awarded an Honorable Mention in his very first show with them.  We are so grateful to have Wan’s presence at CHAW and are especially thrilled to be able to share his story, below, in his own words: 
Wan in his artistic element

Growing up in Malaysia, Chinese lion dances inspired my first childhood drawings.  The lavishly colored lions shattered the light of the tropical sun into a pulsating spectrum that seduced me.  I drew a lion dance for a third grade contest, and the thrill of winning first prize set me on the journey that decades later brought me to CHAW.

I started learning to paint watercolor in high school.  After graduating, I spent several years with a local master learning traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy with its pale pastel shapes, and bold black lines.  I had produced dozens of such paintings by time I immigrated to the United States.  Dealing with the challenges of day to day life in my adopted country left neither time nor energy to paint.

By the end of my first decade here, I had established a more stable and satisfying life living on the Hill and practicing massage therapy, but something was missing.  Eventually, the boy at the lion dance returned to remind me why I became a painter back in Malaysia.  In a mostly drab world that focused mainly on survival, painting made me happy.

I had read about CHAW in the Hill Rag and thought a long time about taking a class in watercolor painting.  Inertia and frustration interfered with my actually enrolling, until a client, who happened to teach at CHAW, introduced me to Gina Clapp.  Gina asked me to show her my paintings, then over a decade old.   I brought them to one of her classes.  She looked at them, and invited me to stay.  Gina recognized the artist in me.  CHAW has given me a home where the artist can grow.

Every class at CHAW provides me with a safe space to enter into myself in the way I must in order to paint.  Each class also offers a group of talented and supportive artist friends to whom I can turn for help at any time; and an opportunity to help and support them in return.  Painting heals me.  It makes me happy.  Each stroke of the brush also helps me to express many other feelings for which I have no words.  Not in Chinese, nor in English.  Colors become my language, and the painting, my story.

With the support of Gina and my many friends at CHAW, I was recently accepted into the Potomac Valley Watercolor Society.  I had two paintings accepted into a recent show, and received an award for one of the paintings.   When I heard my name announced at the opening, I went from the man I am today to the boy I was in third grade, thrilled with winning a prize, and grateful to CHAW for giving that boy a home.

Have a student who exemplifies our CHAW community to feature in this section?  Email us at to nominate a CHAWsome member of our community; we welcome and encourage nominations for kids, adults, adults who act like kids, and everyone in between.

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