Artist exhibiting paintings at Sewickley gallery treasures creative freedom

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Wen Gao's daughter is 9, the same age at which the artist was imprisoned for the first time in his native China.

Now, almost 50 years later, Gao lives in McCandless and hosts art classes. His oil paintings are on display until the end of August as part of “The New Art of Wen Gao” exhibit at International Images Ltd. in Sewickley.

International Images gallery exhibit coordinator David Biernesser said Gao's work is the most eclectic he has seen.

“It's all oil paintings, but there are some that are more realistic and others that are more abstract,” he said.

Gao wasn't always permitted to show and sell his art so freely. While living in China, Gao and his father were imprisoned multiple times for their political beliefs and Gao's “western” art work, he said.

When Gao, 56, was growing up in Beijing, children were required to accompany their parents to jail, which Gao did for the first time when he was 9.

His father did not support the political views of Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China and chairman of the Communist Party of China, Gao said.

Later, Gao said he was imprisoned on and off for secretly studying the work of French and German artists and selling thousands of pieces of his own “non-communist” art.

Starting in the 1940s, art in China was used to serve a political purpose, but Gao supported a movement against this, said Gao's agent and interpreter, Jenny Warburton, of Leet.

Gao said he was passionate about his belief in freedom of artistic expression, and was not willing to stop creating his own pieces even after being in prison several times.

Warburton said neither Gao nor his father ever was charged with a crime, so they could only be held in prison for 30 days at a time.

As a teenager, Gao created art for billboard advertising and made sculptures.

When Gao was 16 and once again in jail with his father, he painted portraits of prisoners and security guards. The prison warden saw Gao had talent.

Gao, who had no formal schooling before that time, was sent to the Chinese Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he majored in sculpture.

Gao had planned to return to prison after two years at school, but when Zedong died in 1976, Warburton said, many laws of that era no longer were enforced.

Gao went on to study at the academy's school of design and when he finished at age 24, he stayed on as an instructor.

He moved to New York City in 1994 where his work was displayed at several galleries in SoHo.

He moved to the Pittsburgh area two years later, operated a gallery in Ross Park Mall and worked as an invited guest artist at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Fine Arts.

He now teaches art classes in his Ross Township studio.

Because Gao has difficulty communicating in English, Warburton, who also is one of his students, said she wanted to help him promote his art.

“He has a lot of talent, and I thought people should know that,” Warburton said.

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or

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