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Bridges: Designing, Building, Preserving
Celebrating 125 Years
view photo gallery
of Liu's work
MAN ON THE STREET
faces tell the story of hard lives lived on the street. Of drug addiction,
mental illness, alcohol abuse, poverty, and pain.
These are not pretty pictures, these pictures painted by Qimin Liu. But
they are real, and they are honest, and they reflect the artist’s
desire to send powerful messages about social issues.
A native of Helongjing Province, China, Liu immigrated to the United States
in 1991 after studying art and stage design at the Haerbin Normal University
and the Institute of Chinese Traditional Drama in China. He studied painting,
drawing, and printmaking at Iowa State, and after earning a master of
arts at ISU in 1997, he traveled east for additional schooling at the
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
Living in Iowa had not prepared Liu for what he found in the cities on
the East Coast. In Philadelphia, he was shocked to find many people living
on the streets. They were all around him, sleeping on benches, under bridges.
Many had barely enough energy to stay alive.
“Such a rich country, a perfect system, how do we have such a thing?”
Liu remem-bers thinking. Yet in these tragic human forms, he found powerful
Liu had been searching for a new direction in figurative painting. He
was tired of painting “normal images, without passion.” He
was searching for images that sent messages of personal experience and
“I want to create images between traditional and contemporary, conceptual
and visual, realistic and abstraction,” he said. “Not boring
From that desire came Liu’s “homeless project” –
larger-than-life-size paintings of homeless people he encountered on the
streets of Philadelphia, Boston, and other East Coast cities. He began
working on the homeless project in 1997. The series of paintings includes
“Under the Sky,” faces of homeless
men, and “Man on the Street,” full-body portraits of urban
homeless sleeping on park benches.
“I saw those people and saw interesting subject matter for my canvas
and my brush,” Liu said. “I want to produce something meaningful,
not just images for self’s sake.”
When Liu came to the United States, he couldn’t speak English. His
family was very poor. There were times, after leaving the Pennsylvania
Academy of Fine Arts, that Liu was very close to being homeless himself.
He lived in an artist’s studio and showered in a homeless shelter.
He made money by painting portraits of tourists on the streets of New
York’s Times Square, living, he says, “on the edge of homelessness.”
But his homeless project portraits caught the attention of gallery owners,
and he began to sell paintings. Since 1997 he’s shown his work in
nearly 50 exhibitions, including a recent one-man show at the Artists’
House Gallery in Philadelphia that a Philadelphia art critic called “one
of the most important exhibits of the year.”
Liu is now an assistant professor in the Department of Arts at Eastern
Connecticut State University, where
he has been since 2000. He continues to work on homeless issues and the
images of minorities and immigrants.
on | Ken Smith