Arts & Culture · Fine Art

The Tao of Friendship

The Five Elements and the Wu Xing Painting Technique

In China during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), Taoist scholars and mystics developed a profound understanding of life, based on the careful observation of nature. The ancient Taoists discovered a pattern of expression in nature that they named Wu Xing, the Five Elements or Five Phases. These elements, or energies, were described as Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ) and were understood to be the primary building blocks from which all matter is formed.

The Five Elements are representations of the transformation that occurs in the world around us; they are metaphors for describing how things interact with or relate to one another. In addition to being a painting technique, this fivefold conceptual system is used in feng shui, astrology, traditional and alternative Chinese medicine, music, military strategy, martial arts, and many other areas of daily life in China.

The Wu Xing painting technique focuses on consciousness and overcoming the restraints imposed by the body and mind. Many Chinese artists describe it as “painting directly from the heart.” The idea is that the painter can paint anything she wants to paint, using any type of materials and the five brush strokes or movements that correspond to the five elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. The painting can be a copy of a traditional Chinese painting or something completely different. What is important is the painter’s state of consciousness.

 SuzanneSuzanne admiring the light through “Sailing to Byzantium”(2015).

The Show

When I arrived in China, Patty picked me up at the airport and drove me directly to Beijing Plastic Factory No. 3 Culture Center, a former plastics factory in one of Beijing’s newest and hippest art districts. It is one of several art spaces in the middle of a working factory in Chaoyang District. All around the gallery, people were unloading trucks, carrying buckets and other tools from building to building, throwing out plastic waste, or cooking food for the workers. Even without jetlag, the experience was surreal.

When I got inside the gallery, I was introduced to the owner Mian Bu and the curator Catherine Cheng, both powerful women in the international art world. Then Patty guided me through the rooms, giving me an overview of the show. The show was made up of paintings, drawings and a 25-meter-long fabric installation based on William Butler Yeats’s poem Sailing to Byzantium. The installation of the work was perfectly thought out; it looked as if all of the artwork had been made for the space. I was filled with awe and pride.

Five large oil paintings, based on the Taoist idea of Wu Xing, depicted the Five Elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. These were hung together in a square room, and the tranquility of the space reminded me of the Rothko Chapel in Houston. There were four more large oil paintings, inspired by the seasons, and some magical smaller paintings that seemed to be related to recent drawings. Those beautifully crisp drawings looked like organic objects found in nature, like bones and rocks. In addition, there were four round paintings in which Patty had painted the activity of the brain in her overall abstract style. And at the center of the show, there was a long room with the installation Sailing to Byzantium.

DSC_1275 Claire Cuccio and Patty Hudak in front of “Inanimate Fantasy” (2015).

As I looked carefully at the artwork, I could see how Patty had combined the very intuitive Chinese approach to painting with her own, more intellectual, Western approach. Patty’s focus in all of her new paintings is on the brush stroke–how to place the paint on the surface of the work. The result is a startlingly harmonious outpouring of emotion on canvas, created by the way that the many different types of lines and colors relate to one another in space.

Patty has always painted colorful, organic forms. What is different about her latest work is its immediacy. The brush strokes on her paintings flow naturally around the canvases, and the lines on her drawings are sharp and confident.

Learning about the Five Elements and Wu Xing painting has even inspired Patty to change her work routine in her studio. After riding her bicycle one hour through the busy streets of Beijing, she starts each day doing a series of drawings and paintings, almost like an athlete warming up before training. By the time, she is ready to work on her “real artwork,” she is loose and focused.

Harrow teachersPatty’s friends and colleagues Camilla Campbell and Wendy Grey.

This focus is also present in Patty’s monumental installation Sailing to Byzantium. The 25-meter-long fabric installation was hung from the ceiling on one end of a long room. From there it billowed down to touch a beam and then a rod, and ended in graceful, wave-like folds flecked with gold on the rough cement floor. The cloth is semi-transparent, and the black paint was absorbed in differing amounts giving the feeling of many different layers and directions of brush strokes. The soft white fabric and flowing black lines seemed to float serenely in the space. The high windows on one side of the room were completely covered with emerald green ivy. The colors and patterns of the leaves subtly contrasted and connected the nature outside to the artwork within. The daylight glowed warmly through the bright leaves and into the cool gallery and the sound of birds chirping filled the air.

As I walked under and around Sailing to Byzantium, I could almost hear Yeats’ powerful words about growing old and the importance of art as a way of achieving a kind of immortality. I used to listen to the Caedmon Poetry Collection CDs called A Century of Poets Reading Their Work, so I am familiar with the lull of Yeats’ deep brogue. Just as I succeeded in remembering the first stanza of the poem, a bird flew throw the gallery space, and I had to hold back a tear. In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats ends the poem by wishing to be a golden mechanical bird:

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Patty Hudak’s beautiful show is no longer open in Beijing, so you can’t go and see it. I have written this description of the show to thank Patty for her friendship. It is an extraordinary privilege to be able to travel to China to share in a true friend’s success.


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  • Elizabeth Titus July 24, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    I met Suzanne in summer 2014 at the Yale Writing Program, and I was struck by her openness and willingness to make a new friend — me. We share an interest in helping Afghan people and initially connected over that. In time, though, we have shared other passions and stayed in touch, despite her being in Copenhagen and my being in NYC. Through this moving article, I see that Suzanne supports all her friends, lifelong ones and newer ones, and I loved reading about her trip to Beijing and Patty’s work. There is indeed an art to friendship, and Suzanne has mastered it!

  • luoyi July 24, 2015 at 10:39 am

    Dear Suzanne, when I read the story just like see you again. So nice the friendship ,the plain words and the beautiful memory, beautiful you and your Patty.Yours,New friend luoyi

  • Catherine Cheng July 23, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Well done! Dear Suzzane, what a great story with art and friendship!
    With appreciation, and looking forward to seeing you soon in NYC. Yours, Catherine Cheng, the curator of Patty’s exhibition

  • Catherine Cheng July 23, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Well done, Suzzane. What a great story about art and friendship!
    So sorry for having missed you in Beijing during the exhibition. I am so proud of Patty for her progress and harvest in China. Thank you again for your nice article! Yours, Catherine Cheng, the curator for this exhibition

  • Niamh Cunningham July 22, 2015 at 9:39 am

    A wonderful piece Suzanne, really enjoyed reading about your friendship in the early days, quite a treat to get that glimpse of life. Loved the comprehensive view of Patty’s work . One work tributes the other’s work , all through friendship..perfect!

  • Leslie in Oregon July 22, 2015 at 12:13 am

    Absolutely fascinating, on so many levels. Thank you for sharing this story with us, Suzanne and Women’s Voices for Change

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen July 21, 2015 at 10:06 am

    Beautiful writing, wonderful story of friendship, incredible review of an artists work. Thank you so much, Suzanne.