Amid a group of Chinese immigrants blasting and chiseling a path through the rugged Sierra Nevada for the Central Pacific Railroad, one man takes a rare and welcome tea break. The details in Cutting a Path, Sierra Nevada, 1866, a 32-by-36-inch oil on canvas by Mian Situ, bring humanity and realism to the scene. But then, Situ knows this story well.
“The track through the mountains was built along steep-sided, avalanche-prone slopes,” he says. “Sometimes the railroad clung to bare granite cliffs. Nine tunnels were chipped out, totaling 5,158 feet in length. Engineering and constructing a railroad through the Sierra Nevada had long been considered an impossible folly. It took Theodore Judah, a brilliant young engineer from New York, and an army of 12,000 diminutive Chinese workers to prove the skeptics wrong.”
Situ also has empathy and regard for the people he paints. “I did the painting to record the significance of this piece of history and pay respect to my ancestors who helped to build the railroad in the West,” he explains.
Born to villagers in Guangdong Province in southern China—“where most of those early Chinese immigrants to America came from”—Situ later moved to a small town, where he became fascinated with art as a teen. “The Cultural Revolution changed the direction of my life from then on,” he says. When schools closed in the summer of 1966, Situ spent much of his free time drawing. Pursuing his passion, he studied at the prestigious Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, where he received a master’s degree and taught classes in oil painting.
‘There was such a strong desire among Chinese youth at the time to leave the country,’ Situ says. ‘I was one of them’
“But life in China at that time was like living ‘behind the closed door,’” he says. “There was such a strong desire among Chinese youth at the time to leave the country. I was one of them. I had been studying Western art for all these years. I was also curious to see the West.”
In 1987 Situ came to the United States. Moving to Canada a year later, he returned stateside in 1998 and now lives in San Dimas, east of Los Angeles. The artist’s career skyrocketed after John J. Geraghty, longtime trustee of L.A.’s Autry Museum of the American West, invited him to participate in the 2001 Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition. The next year Situ’s Powder Monkeys won the Masters of the American West Purchase Award and other honors at the Autry.
“I had never imaged I would be in a Western show,” Situ says. “All those painting subjects in the show were new to me at the time. John was aware of my hesitation, but he had this suggestion: I can paint the Chinese American experience, also part of the American West. I was thrilled at the opportunity.”
Since childhood Situ had heard stories about the Chinese who worked on the transcontinental railroad. “‘Golden Mountain’ was how people in my hometown referred to America,” he says. To research the subject he turns to archival photos, books, museums and visits to the historical sites, when possible and practical.
“The problem with visiting a location is that the places have changed so much,” the artist explains. He recalls one particular site in northern California’s Tuolumne County. “The area was known as ‘Chinee’ or ‘Chinese Camp’ or ‘Chinese Diggings,’ At one point the town was home to an estimated 5,000 Chinese. But when I visited it in 2003, it was hard to find any trace left behind by the Chinese gold miners.”
Represented by Trailside Galleries in Jackson, Wyo., and Scottsdale, Ariz., and American Legacy Fine Arts in Pasadena, Calif., Situ [miansitu.net] also tries his hand at landscapes and other subjects. “There is a saying, ‘Never too old to learn,’” he says. “I feel I am learning every day to perfect my art. I am still not satisfied with what I am doing, so I will focus on making my art stronger.”
But he has mastered one important lesson. “An artist needs not only to tell how the story unfolds, but also to let viewers share how you feel about the story.” WW