When Ying Zhu was choosing a major at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, family friends encouraged her to focus on computer science because, they said, she would always be able to find a job. Little did they know how right they were. But not because the BS in Management Information Systems that she earned would lead to job offers, but rather because taking art classes to fill credit hours would convince her that her true calling was art.
In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that Zhu wound up in a career rooted in creativity rather than information technology. The artist, who was born and raised in China, had studied stage lighting design and received a BA in photography at China Communication University in Beijing before moving to America. So making the jump to art was not a big leap. “My last semester at UNO I needed to take additional credit hours to be full-time for my scholarship,” she explains. “Although it sounds cliché, I never studied so hard as I did for the studio design class. I was very immersed in it. I knew what I wanted to do. For computers, I couldn’t wait to graduate. For art, I didn’t want to leave.”
She never has. After taking a year off, she returned to school, and this time studied art. Zhu earned her MFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2010, and the following year became an Artist-in-Residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, ranked one of the country’s top residency programs. Artists from around the world apply annually for limited slots in a blind jury process, and the likelihood of a local artist being selected was a long shot. Zhu, however, received one of the coveted spots, and the residency allowed her to understand the intricacies of her profession better.
“I was freshly out of school,” she remembers. “The artists I was with were all in my age group and emerging. It was really nice to see how people worked and managed their careers.”
How Zhu works is hard to classify. “I try not to categorize,” she says, “but most of my work is three-dimensional installation-based art.”
That’s putting it simply. Zhu creates work that is often breathtaking both in scope and articulation. When Project Harmony, a non-profit dedicated to stopping child abuse, wanted artwork for its new Omaha headquarters, Zhu was chosen from an open call. Her proposal involved creating a 500-square-foot floor-to-ceiling wall composed of 650 10”x10” panels that mimicked ocean waves. She chose this subject and the different shades of blue for a reason. “It is a simple image,” she says. “Sea water and the colors are soothing for children.”
But Zhu didn’t just paint the panels; she constructed each of them from Legos, roughly two million of them in the smallest size available—the kind usually used to create tiny details like traffic lights.
The work was labor-intensive and time-consuming, and Zhu worked with people of all ages to construct the panels. “I really felt the love of the community through this project,” she remarks. “I had groups of people coming to help. I met a lot of people I normally would not have.”
Other projects followed, with the most recent being Zhu’s most prominent to date. UNO commissioned her to create an installation for its new Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center, the permanent home for its outreach programs, which opened this past April. Like Project Harmony, this installation was similarly detail-oriented. Zhu took six sheets of large-scale mirrors, cut into approximately one-inch, irregularly shaped pieces, and painted the edges in seven vibrant colors. She then mounted the pieces over several sections of the lobby’s wall to create a dazzling optical effect.
“I used mirrors because the center is a gateway between the university and the community,” Zhu says. “In my mind, I envisioned how we see ourselves in others and how they see us…as reflections of one another. But I didn’t want people to see exact replicas. I wanted fragments. I wanted a little of me in you, a little of you in me. I wanted a lot of fragments because there are many of us.”
The artist’s career shows no signs of slowing down. During September, she has two exhibitions, one at the Lux Center for the Arts in Lincoln, the other at Creighton University’s Lied Art Gallery, and that work will be just as new and fresh, but still inimitably hers.
“There’s a common thread in my work that is mostly my aesthetic,” Zhu muses. “But it is constantly changing and evolving. I am always trying to broaden my repertoire. It’s best not to limit myself.”
And as her work continues to grow in scale and concept, it’s certain that she won’t.
For more information about the artist, visit www.yingzhu.org
The writer is the Communications Manager for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.