Beverly Herndon

Beverly Herndon posing with one of her masterful brush stroke paintings rendered in the traditional Chinese style.

Expressing spirit is at the heart of Chinese brush painting.

It’s believed that a single brush stroke has the ability to portray the artist’s life force, sensitivity and thought processes. Marshaling those feelings through a carefully ritualized process using wolf hair brushes, inks with names such as “Yellow Mountain Pine Smoke” and handmade mulberry paper are part of the centuries-old rite.

Norman artist Beverly Herndon has both mastered this art personally, along with the skill for teaching it to others. Practicing this art has a spiritual effect on her.

“It saves my sanity,” Herndon said. “There was a period of time when life was in chaos. I would go to class when I was still a student and think of nothing else but the art. When I’m painting, most of the time I’m focused on just that. It’s like a meditation.”

Setting out the tools, preparing the ink’s desired thickness from its stone form with a bit of water, wetting the bamboo-handled brush and laying the thin absorbent paper just so is part of the soul-satisfying ritual.

“One of the things I’ve always liked about Chinese brush painting is that it’s a poetic process with symbolism involved,” Herndon said. “The bamboo that we often paint pictures of symbolizes strength and the ability to bounce back from adversity. It bends in the wind, doesn’t break and stands back up.”

Herndon is decidedly not Chinese, which people have pointed out to her on numerous occasions. You wouldn’t know it from only seeing her art — it looks like the kind of work one might view from the Yuan Dynasty at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

Herndon is Caucasian, and grew up in Lawton. As an adult, she learned to paint in her genre 40 years ago here in Norman.

“A friend suggested I take a Chinese brushwork class from Ming-fai Yu at the Firehouse Art Center, and it ended up just capturing my heart,” Herndon said.

She already had an interest in Asian philosophy and religions.

“Ming was my teacher until she moved away,” Herndon said. “Her husband was a professor at the University of Oklahoma and they moved on to another university. My next teacher was Martha Rust. I was so fond of Ming that it was hard to think about being taught by anybody else. But Martha persisted and kept asking me to join the class, so I did. Even after her health failed and she stopped teaching at Firehouse, I continued to be her student.”

Rust had a plan — it was to prepare Herndon to be a Chinese brushwork teacher.

“That was the furthest thing from my mind,” Herndon said. “Me? I’d just get tongue-tied and hesitant to demonstrate. I just nodded at Martha. But then, Nancy McClellan, who was director at the Firehouse Art Center at the time, told me that they really needed another person to teach that kind of art and asked me to do it.”

Finally, with encouragement from both Rust and McClellan, Herndon gave teaching a go.

“I found that I really enjoyed sharing and learned to teach by teaching,” she said. “My students helped me learn to teach through their differences in how they did things.”

In addition to the Firehouse, she has also taught summer camps for children at the Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa, with a private group of adults in Oklahoma City, at Norman Public Schools’ visiting artist program and through various workshops across Oklahoma.

Herndon teaches students to paint landscapes, flowers and birds that her Chinese teachers taught her. The genre shares similarities in its themes and techniques.

For a commissioned piece, Herndon once painted a Scissor-tailed flycatcher bird, which wouldn’t be typical subject matter. She’s painted Pentas flowers that are foreign to the genre because they were attracting hummingbirds outside her rural Norman studio window.

Chinese characters that began thousands of years ago as pictographs are often in the pictures. Herndon does not speak, read or write Mandarin.

“Chinese calligraphy on the painting is part of the composition,” she said. “I don’t attempt to do too much writing on my paintings — usually I just sign my name. If I do use some characters, it’s because I have some reference. It may be a feeling related to the painting.”

She still finds challenges in her work. Controlling the brush moisture in relation to the paper type is one essential. Once a bamboo leaf stroke is made, there are no do-overs.

“I’d like to be able to paint clouds like I see them, but just haven’t got that effect when I try,” Herndon said. “Sometimes my demonstrations for a class will turn into a painting.”

Herndon will offer Winter 2022 Chinese brushwork painting classes at the Firehouse Art Center separately for children and adults.


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