Washington Post 2005 Cover Story

Memory Blossoms Into a Winning Entry

Artist's Painting Is 2005 Festival's Official Image

By Susan DeFord

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page PW09

Several years ago, Joan Lok traveled to the District on a business trip during an unusually warm March. She and her colleagues had heard that the cherry trees were at their peak, so they headed to the Tidal Basin at the end of their seminar.

Lok took many photographs that day. But when she sat down last spring to paint the cherry trees, she put the photos aside and worked from memory.

In an Oriental style emboldened with color, she deftly spread watercolors on rice paper using natural-hair brushes. She painted her recollection of that fragile, trembling cloud of pink that breathed with each breeze off the Potomac, their gnarled branches weeping a blush snow of petals.

Then she carefully packed up her painting, adorned with her small Chinese script signature amid the tree boughs, and sent it to Washington. Now, her picture of dappled pink and soft blue enveloping a bright white Jefferson Memorial is everywhere -- on Washington buses and subway cars, on tens of thousands of brochures and programs, on T-shirts and key chains, refrigerator magnets, even blankets. Lok's memory is the official image of the 2005 National Cherry Blossom Festival, a two-week celebration of spring that began last Saturday and is expected to draw nearly a million visitors.

"It increases the appreciation of an art form," said Lok, an energetic woman who paints in her living room in Columbia, Md. "I think that's a positive thing that's already happening."

Lok's work stood out among the entries in an annual art contest sponsored by the nonprofit group that organizes the Cherry Blossom Festival.

"We don't get fine art very often. Lots of what we get is graphic art," said Diana Mayhew, the festival organization's executive director. That is in part because the group sets specific criteria for what it wants -- scenes of Washington, cherry blossoms, the color pink. "This one just fit so perfectly."

As a result of the festival organization's presence on the Internet (www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/cms/index.php) and new partnerships with arts groups, interest in the annual contest is growing. The 2002 art contest drew 17 entries. In 2004 there were 66 entries, and this year 107. Submissions came from across the United States and other countries, including Germany, Thailand and India.

Like her father, a Hong Kong accountant, poet and calligrapher, Lok, 42, has pursued diverse interests in business and art. Growing up in a family of six children, she took art classes at the Hong Kong School of Fine Arts and studied hotel and tourism management for three years at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

A student cultural exchange program brought her in 1983 to the United States, where she met her husband, David. She earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and marketing and launched a career in the New York area with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Lok continues to work with the FDIC as a community affairs specialist. She and her husband have two sons, 13-year-old Wesley and 7-year-old Gary, a budding artist.

In 1988 she saw a listing for an Oriental brush painting class in New York City. It was a new endeavor for Lok, who had studied only Western art in Hong Kong. She found herself on a Saturday morning in a room with elderly Chinese men, painting together on a large sheet of rice paper. Soon afterward, one of the men praised her talent and presented her with a set of brushes. One small brush obviously had been used. It was made in Japan with the hair of a wild mountain horse. It had been his, and with that gift, the elderly man, Fong-Yuen Ng, became Lok's teacher.

The experience, Lok said, "let me feel that talent is hard to come by. If you have it, you should not waste it."

As she sketched and practiced paintings of landscapes, birds and her favorite flower, the peony, Lok delved into the ancient Asian traditions that inform the art.

"The emptiness is as important as the fullness," she said, gesturing with ink-stained hands to the mists that enshroud the midsection of a craggy mountain painted in black and gray and the white expanse that shimmers around her watercolor of a bluebird perched on a branch. "It definitely leaves room for the imagination, for you to take it in."

Lok's Columbia home, where she and her family have lived since 2002, is not only her studio but also a gallery for her art. Even her white sweatshirt sports her handiwork, a vivid fuchsia peony.

Her enthusiasm for Asian painting led her three years ago to become president of the Sumi-e Society of America, a national nonprofit group whose Japanese name, pronounced Soo-mee-yee, means water and ink. The 42-year-old society has about 800 members in its 12 chapters, many of them Westerners who have embraced its artistic goal of capturing a subject's "chi," a Chinese term that means energy.

"The spiritual element in it appeals to me. Painting has become everything. I paint every day," said Richard Kaufman, a Bethesda resident who is president of the Sumi-e chapter that encompasses Maryland, Virginia and the District. For years, Lok's work has been displayed and has won awards in chapter shows and solo exhibitions in this country and abroad, including in Canada, Australia, China, Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia. Winning the National Cherry Blossom Festival contest has put her work before the public in a new and highly visible way.

Lok received a $1,000 award from the contest but, according to the rules, she won't receive any proceeds from sales of posters, mugs, T-shirts and other souvenirs that organizers hope to sell.

"I don't know how much money will be earned on this. I don't think I'll ever find out," Lok said.

It doesn't bother her greatly.

"You can look at it a different way," she said. "I actually think it's cool."