Anna Wu Weakland
Publication Date: Wednesday May 1, 1996

Anna Wu Weakland

When Anna Wu Weakland speaks it is with the quiet confidence of someone who knows herself very well. Her words are thoughtful, very specific and clear, unlike the abstract visual designs of the art work that has made her an internationally known artist.

The colors of her art work, however, often mirror her intensity toward life.

Although Anna sees herself primarily as an artist, she is also a teacher and benefactor to her community. As an artist she can point to more than 30 exhibitions of her work at major institutions across the globe. The majority of these have been one-person exhibits of her paintings where she often utilizes Western painting techniques to portray ancient Chinese themes.

In addition, her work is held in the collections of several major museums and corporations. As she likes to say, "art is the food of challenge and ideas." Her art has nourished her well during a productive career that has spanned almost half a century.

She has always been an intuitive teacher, as a young girl in China teaching an illiterate man to read or as a mature artist working with students at her Palo Alto studio. "Teaching is important. It is a way to pass on our culture." She volunteers regularly to present programs on Chinese painting, art, and culture at local high schools, colleges, and other civic organizations. An activity that has paralleled her involvement in art. This is the generosity of someone who "never thinks about getting, (but) you just do."

Anna was born in Shanghai, China in 1924. She was eldest daughter of six children. Her father was well educated and moderately successful, so the family was fortunate to be able to live an upper-middle class existence.

Anna's father was her role model and source of her ambition.

At the age of five she knew she wanted to become a highly educated person; a scholar in the Chinese sense, knowledgeable of both modern and ancient China. Although it was not yet fashionable in Chinese culture, Anna's father required that all of his children, females included, be college educated. It never crossed Anna's mind that she could not become the scholar she dreamed of being, even though her mother was herself uneducated (the existing tradition). Anna was initially tutored at home, completing her secondary education at an all girls school in Shanghai. In 1943, after a period of very intense and dedicated study she graduated with a BA from the University of Shanghai. She was only 19.

After obtaining her BA, Anna began working in the advertising industry in Shanghai. ln 1945, she opened her own advertising agency, becoming the first woman in China to do so. Desiring to continue her education to achieve her goal as a scholar, Anna left China in 1947 to attend either the University of Chicago or Columbia University. She had been admitted to and offered financial support by both universities.

Anna would have liked to apply to Harvard, "the only other school worth considering at the time," but Harvard did not accept women.

She enrolled at Columbia University with the intent of acquiring a Ph.D. in sociology. Anna had completed her course work (acquiring her MA in 1948) and was working on her dissertation when the direction of her life began to change.

Anna often gave lectures and presentations at the China Institute in New York City, to introduce Americans to China and Chinese culture. Her ability to deal with both English and Chinese (she was fluent in the major Chinese dialects) made her a perfect choice to act as the translator for Wang Ya-Chun. Wang was a well known Chinese painter recently brought to this country (and Columbia University) to curate a show of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although Anna's early education had included calligraphy, the basis of all brush work in Chinese painting, she did not show any significant interest in art until she met Wang. The next several years were exciting years for Anna as she "discovered" art, both Western and Asian. She began a study of Chinese painting with Wang, abandoning her dissertation research in sociology ("painting was more exciting, more fun than sociology.")

This transition was not accomplished without considerable anguish, since she had been assured of a faculty position at the University of Shanghai once she had obtained her Ph.D. Even today, after almost 50 years as an artist, she feels no regret about her decision.

"If a (new) opportunity comes into your life that feels right (you must) jump at it," she says.

Anna continued to paint and study Chinese art in New York City until she moved to the Bay Area in 1953. During this time she was still associated with the China Institute, as a teacher of Chinese Painting.

In 1950 Anna married John H. Weakland, a fellow student at Columbia University. John Weakland was a psychotherapist who had a long and productive association with the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto. Their marriage of 46 years ended with John's death in July 1995.

Anna has three children, now grown and married, two sons, Alan and Lewis, and one daughter, Joan. In addition she is a grandmother with two grandchildren.

During those first years in California, Anna studied Western painting at Stanford University. In her art work she started to apply Western painting techniques to traditionally Chinese subjects. The numerous group (starting in 1953, Hunter College, NY) and one-person exhibits (starting in 1959, De Young Museum, San Francisco) which followed have been a testament to the success of this artistic vision.

Away from her art, Anna tends to spend her time reading and traveling. Although these two activities are signatures of the scholarly life she visualized as a small child, they both act as sources of ideas and inspiration for her art work. She regularly visits China, touring the well-known as well as the remote areas. During these travels she has managed to climb all five of the scared mountains of China. She loves to cook and has on occasion given programs on Chinese cooking to local organizations. She keeps physically healthy with a regimen of aerobic dancing (which she will demonstrate to visitors), tennis, and walking.

To focus more clearly on her art, Anna has consciously acted over the years to simplify her life. In this sometimes lonely career she found constant encouragement and support from many people. Perhaps the most meaningful was the undemanding support and encouragement of her mother, father and husband, she says.

Her mother, who always felt that Anna would be successful, perished in Communist China, never knowing of her daughter's successful career in art. Her father, with great difficulty and danger, had managed to escape to Hong Kong. Her husband was very proud of her achievements and a consistent encouragement to her, often bringing colleagues home to show them her latest work.

Looking back, Anna finds that she "had a very interesting life." Her constant goal has been to do work that is meaningful and produces happiness. She is blessed with a constant stream of new ideas "to create the art work." In fact there has never been enough time for all the new ideas. It has been a life filled with hard work and study. Today she continues to learn by teaching others and by being open to being taught; at heart she is still the scholar of her youth.

-- Mickey R. Shanabarger

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