Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
In the 1949, Pablo Picasso famously experimented with creating images in the air using light. In a darkened room and using a small electric “light pen,” the artist created a total of 30 “light drawings” of centaurs, bulls, flower vases, Greek profiles, and even his own signature. The images would have disappeared immediately if they hadn’t been captured in photographs taken with a long exposure by Gjon Mili, a LIFE magazine photographer and lighting innovator who had attached small lights to the skates of ice skaters and photographed them in motion. The technique of light drawing originated in 1914 when scientists Frank and Lillian Gilbreth used small lights and an open shutter to track the motions of factory workers. In the six decades since Mili introduced it to Picasso, a number of other artists have explored light drawing, or light painting, and in recent years, with innovations in photographic technology and the increased availability of portable LED lights, applications of the technique have become artistically and culturally diverse. In the last decade, one Southern California artist, Echo Lew, has been creating imagery that he describes as a combination of photography and meditation. His energetic monochromatic works have the spontaneity and simplicity of Zen calligraphy, lending a deeper philosophical dimension to this playful, yet highly technical, art form.
Born in Kaohsiung, Taiwan in 1951, Lew always hoped to become an artist, but rather than studying art in college he majored in navigation, with the intention of realizing a good salary as a merchant marine. Although he did take some drawing and watercolor classes, the high point of his college career was a year spent on a ship traveling around the world acquiring various sailing and navigation skills. Whenever his ship landed in a new country, however, Lew would make his way to the local art museums and learn as much as he could about art. After graduation, he pursued a range of different careers but always drew and painted on the side. He worked briefly for a Taiwanese merchant marine but after one year, he left to start a business designing writing instruments, gaining two patents for his inventions. In 1983, he moved to the United States with his family and settled in Kansas, where he and his wife ran a Chinese restaurant for 10 years. In 1993, Lew moved to the Los Angeles area and began pursuing his passion for art in earnest. He started out as an oil painter, primarily exploring abstract expressionist imagery, but in 2004 he began studying photography. Around the same time, he was practicing Zen Buddhist meditation, and he noticed that if he had been practicing for a long time, he would start to see light. It occurred to him that he might be able to find a way to combine his photography practice with his meditation. One night, while visiting Shanghai in 2006, he was standing on a street corner gazing at the patterns formed by the lights of cars speeding by him. It was then that he had the idea to create light drawings.
His work with light begins with meditation, sitting in silence and stilling his mind. After meditating, he creates a simple drawing, a sketch based on images that appeared to him during meditation. Then for one minute, in a darkened room he guides a wire frame onto which he has attached small LED lights through the air by hand, using a long exposure to photograph the line of light as it swirls, loops and dances through the dark space. For some works he attaches lights to a body suit and moves his entire body to music. While some of his images are printed white on black and others include watercolor and acrylic accents, most of his final images are a negative of what his camera captures. On white fine art paper, he prints the hundreds of thread-like lines created by the light in black, producing delicate but vibrant monochrome patterns that evoke approaching storm clouds, a silk gauze scarf caught in the wind, or a swarm of determined bees seeking a new home.
By shaking the wire frame, Lew has discovered that he can break up the slender lines and produce a complex array of dots, varying in density according to his movements. The bold, tonal gradation that is created in his light drawings is reminiscent of the spontaneity and simplicity of Zen Buddhist calligraphy and brush painting. This is no coincidence. “In my Zen Buddhist meditation practice,” Lew explains, “the lights bend like a reed in the breeze, or soar freely as a bird above a cliff, thousands of lights dancing in my mind. The inner world is clean, clear and full of fresh air. Thousands of lights move as a wave. The secrets of the universe are revealed.” And these secrets, as described in light and then ink by Lew, are thankfully dynamic expressions of natural harmony.
Since he began his light drawings 10 years ago, Lew has exhibited these works in group shows in Los Angeles, Chicago, Indiana, Florida, Germany, Italy, Japan, China and Taiwan and in early 2016, he held two solo exhibitions in Taiwan. “My work is hard to label,” he admits. “It could be considered photography, drawing, calligraphy or print.” However, although he has occasionally encountered problems fitting into a particular artistic category for certain exhibitions, the ambiguity of his work has generally worked to his advantage. After years of exploration, innovation and meditation, and decades of drawing and painting using more conventional methods, Lew has found in light drawing a profound form of play. “Digital photography allows me to expand creatively while using an ultra-contemporary medium with limitless potential.”
Top image: Echo Lew, "Untitled (#1047)," 2014. Chinese ink and mixed media.