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Chinese artist Zhao Kailin

Zhao Kailin, 2014, oil on linen, 60 inches by 46 inches

The artist: His second-grade teacher recognized in him a gift for painting. But this came amid the Chinese Cultural Revolution, so much of young Zhao Kailin’s efforts were limited to painting portraits of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. A turning point came in 1982 when he was 21. That’s when oil magnate Armand Hammer took his collection of European and American masterpieces to Beijing for the first exhibition of its kind in China. Zhao was stunned at what he saw. “Rembrandt! Sargent!” Zhao graduated in 1991 from Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied Italian and Dutch Renaissance painters. By the next year, his oil paintings were exhibited in Sweden. Today his works can be found in galleries in London and New York and in Laguna Beach at the Mandarin Fine Art Gallery. His portraits, mostly of young women he found through Chinese ballet academies, reflect his devotion to the classic techniques. “He likes portraits because he likes personality,” said his son Eric, translating for his father, who speaks little English. Zhao, 54, who goes by “Kail,” lives with his son and wife, Susan, in Irvine, where he paints in a studio just off I-5.

The artist’s inspiration: “The clothing is from the 19th century. It’s a very interesting story how he found it. He tried to find a dress like this for years in China. When we came to America, we go to Santa Barbara, to an antique store. Kail found the clothing at the store. He guesses that the gown was purchased many years before and brought to America. It took almost two months to paint. Every day, he works between 9 o’clock and 7 o’clock and only stops for lunchtime. We found the girl at the dance academy. She was only 16, but you can see a lot of story in her face. Kail thinks she’s about 30 now. He only knows she left her hometown and went to the big city.” As told by Eric Zhao to Jodie Tillman.

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