This interview was conducted and recorded in Cantonese Chinese by (Sylvia) Ching Man Wong. Transcription by Ching Man Wong and Keenan Yutai Chen with English translation by Keenan Yutai Chen. Read the transcript and translation below:
Calligraphy artist Lu Zhao was born in 1942 in Toishan in China’s Guangdong Province. He immigrated to New York in 1989 and lives with his family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Mr. Zhao says that his path to mastering calligraphy began as a five-year-old and he started painting portraits when he was eight. His first teacher was Jinyu Zhao, a member of his extended family who taught him to write on scrolls, choose copybooks, and the relationship between paper, brush and ink.
Growing up in a poor family, Mr Zhao recalls setting aside money he earned from painting portraits to buy art supplies. During the Cultural Revolution, art schools stopped holding entrance exams. “I could only study on my own, that was it.” He says that he followed the example of Wang Mian, a Yuan dynasty poet and painter who “was raising cattle but somehow taught himself to paint plum blossoms.” After high school, Mr. Zhao made a living teaching Chinese literature, calligraphy and painting, and joined various calligraphy societies in China. In New York, he worked as a painter for hire, as well as in restaurants and garment factories, to support his family.
In 2015, a story and video about Mr. Zhao volunteering to create the funeral scrolls for Police Officer Wenjian Liu was featured in the New York Times and brought him acclaim. Liu and his partner Officer Rafael Ramos had been shot and killed while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn. “I regard him (Officer Liu) as a Chinese national hero,” says Mr. Zhao, who participated in exhibitions honoring extraordinary people during his high school years. “I have been admiring national heroes since I was a kid and showing a lot of respect for them.”
His calligraphy and paintings are in the collections of the White House, Harvard-Yengching Library, Songshan Shaolin Temple and Deqing Museum in Huzhou, Zhejiang, among others.