Lights silhouette her as she glides into the frame, while the photographer adjusts the reflector. Assistants buzz about, moving paraphernalia from sight so the portrait is perfect. Despite the constant activity, Lynn Hsieh remains cool, calm and composed.
No stranger to a set, the former actress runs a manicured hand across an aberrant curl and sets it in place while she finds her light. Within the first few minutes we have the shot, but like many around the gallery, there’s a reluctance to let the leading lady leave, as everyone wants a picture with the beautiful Taiwanese artist.
I ask if this reminds her of a movie set. “Yes, it does – but the location is a lot cleaner than most movie sets,” she says, and that renowned, beatific smile escapes her as we look around Poly Auction Gallery, which is festooned with her work.
We meet on the eve of the opening of her exhibition, Purity: An Oil Painting Exhibition (which ran until early September under the name Hsieh Ling Ling). Hsieh’s debut solo show in Hong Kong, it features 30 examples of her work created between 2011 and 2017. Alongside the connoisseurs and the simply curious who attend the opening are her five children: Emily, Evelyn, Eleanor (Elly), Lucas and Lester Lam.
“Of all my children,” she says, “I think Elly’s inherited my artistic side. She’s into music and fashion.
“When I used to paint at home, I had a little area where I set up my easel and near it there was a pool table. Whenever I had the brushes out, the children left me alone. If they were playing pool nearby, I didn’t mind. It never bothered me as I knew they were near and they were OK – and they let me be.”
Her home is often full of people. Apart from her five adult children, grandchildren, in-laws and pets constantly flow in and out of her house. Yet if art is a form of escape, Hsieh has clearly found a refuge with palette and paint. Looking at a row of canvases, there’s nature and solitude, empty fields and landscapes devoid of human life. A telling image is of a woman paddling alone on a boat, pulling away from shore, blissfully solitary on the water.
“Most of the paintings are inspired by my travels, or even images I’ve seen in books and magazines,” she says, as we amble around the gallery. “There are some places that I even saw on Instagram and thought, I want to paint that – but I interpret it my way. Many are from moments in my holidays that I remember – or how I’d like to remember them.”
She glances across to the farthest wall and two small paintings of her dogs. “Well, they were easier to paint than any of my children, who never sit still,” she says. “The dogs are more obedient!”
The gallery’s chairman, Jiang Yingchun, is full of praise for the artist. “Her works illustrate a distinctive style by encompassing neat brushstrokes, clear compositions, bold colours, and a daring blend of Chinese- and oil-
painting techniques,” she says. “All these combinations deliver a sense of ingenuity in her delicate works.”
In this latest incarnation, Hsieh seems just as a prodigious a talent as she was when, as a young actress, she starred in five movies between 1977 and 1979. A self-imposed hiatus followed this initial prolific burst of activity, but she returned to the screen in 1986 under the name Ling Tse to continue a career that has garnered statuary that includes two Taipei Golden Horse awards. Her last appearance was in a 2002 film, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist.
If she misses the fame and the limelight, she shows no sign of it. “No, I don’t miss it at all,” she says. “When I look back, it was work and it was fun, but … it was still work. After I got married, I was busy having children and then I was encouraged by my mother-in-law to go back to work. I went into business and I was very successful, and I enjoyed it a lot more than film. On a movie set there’s a lot of waiting around. And sometimes you get paid, sometimes you don’t. In business, it’s not like that.”
Hsieh also indulged her interest in art, taking lessons in the 1980s from Chinese painting master Huang Junbi and, later, from oil painter Ma Yiyuan. Her work, however, cannot be defined within the parameters set by classic Chinese painting styles. Also inspired by paintings such as Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners, Hsieh’s art mixes Eastern and Western methodologies.
Her first solo charity exhibition was held in Taiwan in 2015 and now, with Purity she reveals her ease at the easel to audiences on these shores for the first time.
“I used to paint for myself,” she says, “and never for my paintings to be displayed in such a public fashion, but I was encouraged by my family to do something about it. Also, I wanted to give to some of my favourite charities and this is my contribution. A film is other people’s efforts and you speak other people’s words – you act out what the director wants. In business it’s teamwork and a lot of other other factors, but with art this is all my effort, my learning, my contribution entirely.”
Since our meeting, Hsieh has donated three million new Taiwan dollars (around HK$780,000) to Taiwan U-Life Association, while the remaining proceedings from all art sales will be donated to the Hong Kong Single Parents Association in support of its efforts to help the old and the underprivileged, and disabled children, as well as single-parent families.
“I’ve been a single parent for nearly 23 years and I feel that there’s a – I don’t know how to phrase this, but I feel that people look down a little on single mothers even in this day and age,” she says. “I want to help those women. I know how it feels to work hard to make sure your children have everything.
“I did the paintings just for myself, for my benefit, but the sale of those paintings will benefit many, many others.”
Purity: An Oil Painting Exhibition will travel around mainland China in the near future to help people in need. For further information and to view the works of Hsieh Ling Ling, visit polyauction.com.hk.
Portrait by Until Chan