Mimi Chen Ting was a Chinese-American painter, printmaker, and performance artist whose high-spirited practice fused Eastern and Western aesthetics. She was active in the artist communities of the Bay Area of San Francisco, CA, and Taos, NM.
An intense, unpretentious woman with a soft voice and fierce spirit, Ms. Ting was born in Shanghai, China, at the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War and during the communist takeover of the mainland. As a teenager her father swept floors for the industrialists Song Brothers to support his own family. By the time of Ms. Ting’s birth, he had worked his way up to Bank manager. Her mother was a concubine introduced to her father—16 years her senior when she was just 13. Raised in what Ms. Ting considered feudalistic China, she grew up in a compound with a shared courtyard where she played with other children and waited for the rice popper man to pass by. Memories of her maternal grandmother’s bound feet made a lasting impression–the imagery of which entered into many of her early figurative paintings.
As Ms. Ting’s father rose through the ranks of the banking industry, he relocated the family to Hong Kong. There Ms. Ting spent her childhood attending a convent school, where she was regularly charged by the nuns to make festive cards and headed the annual Christmas decorating. As she began to excel in ballet, her mother withdrew her from studying for fear that she would become “too muscular.” Ms. Ting rebelled, defiantly refusing to attend her piano lessons. This introduction to dance made a lasting impression, later informing her foray into contemporary performance art.
In middle school, she studied calligraphy. “Everybody had to take calligraphy,” she said. “I never really understood it until I was much older.” Attending Buddhist temples with her grandmother exposed her to rich colors, ancient wisdom, and reliquary forms, and trips with her father to see the Beijing Opera introduced her to theatrical costumes and dramatic movements. These events constituted her early influences, “without really realizing that’s what it was.”
In 1965, and with the contingency that she enroll in an all-girl’s Catholic school, Ms. Ting left Hong Kong for San Francisco to attend the San Francisco College of Women (now part of the University of San Francisco). There she pursued dual degrees in sociology and English literature. Though conditioned to perceive art as an indulgence, she signed up for an extra class every semester to do art. “It made me so happy to do it, to draw and paint.”
Realizing that “being a social worker was very different from just having good intentions,” Ms. Ting switched her major during her third year at college to art and transferred to California State University in San Jose (now known as San Jose State University). There, she was introduced to the art of Giotto and Piero Della Francesca. “I liked the simplified forms, the flatness against each other. The dynamics between the forms,” she reflected.
At San Jose State, one instructor, Eric Oback, made a powerful impression on Ms. Ting. He urged her to find her own way of painting, and most importantly to “let the how follow the what.”
During these years, and being so close to Berkeley, Ms. Ting participated in the free speech movement, countless Vietnam protests, and attended the last rally for Robert Kennedy before his assassination in 1968. She supported herself working at a liquor store and as a hostess at a local restaurant. Ms. Ting received her BA in Art from San Jose State University in 1969, and she immediately began pursuing a graduate degree,
This was a challenging time for Ms.Ting as she tried to strike the balance between her personal and professional life. Shortly after graduating, she married her college boyfriend,Andrew Ting in 1969. Their first child, Cheryl, was born in 1970, and their second child, Clarence, was born in 1972.
As she found her footing as a wife and mother, Ms. Ting remained dogged in pursuit of her art. Her first solo exhibition took place at Lucien Labaudt Gallery in San Francisco in 1970. The show consisted of paintings on paper, some made while “working in the corner of my bedroom lined with newspaper, while my infant daughter slept and played among pillows in our bed,” she recalled. The work on view was inspired by a trip to the Grand Canyon, where she harnessed the shapes and the sense of land, “but the palette was all my own.” This debut earned her an encouraging review by senior art critic Thomas Albright in the San Francisco Chronicle. Landscape, and moreover, the psychological connection to it, would forever be a recurring theme in her work.
Like many women of her generation, gaining a footing in the gallery scene was a constant struggle. She told the story of approaching Smith-Andersen Gallery in Palo Alto early in her career, to show her work. “That was where Sam Francis was showing and I thought I’d really like to show with him. I didn’t know there were several ways to approach a gallery,” she recalled. “I remember having my baby on one hip, a piece of work in my other arm and a copy of my review in hand as I walked into the gallery. I just walked in thinking, ‘Oh well, they’ll be so impressed.’” They told her to come back in a few years; she did.
In the years that followed, balancing her responsibilities as a mother, Ms. Ting maintained time in the studio becoming an accomplished printmaker. She completed her MA in painting in 1976 and began teaching drawing and design at the college level.
As her children were of an age where their needs made it difficult to find time for focused studio work, she returned to the study of dance—gravitating to modern techniques but embracing the pace and philosophy of Butoh. Ms. Ting explored performance work integrating both static and kinetic elements. In 1981, Ms. Ting became one of four founding members of a modern dance company often performing in abandoned sites across the Bay Area. “I love the kinesthetic,” she said, “I love feeling movement through my body. And I find that a very natural form of expression for me.” Ms. Ting’s paintings from his period are primarily figurative, often biographical in their referencing of ancestral identity within a gestural-dreamlike space.
Beginning what she called her “second migratory arc,” in 1988, Ms. Ting impulsively purchased a one-room house on the mesa in Taos, New Mexico. The desire to see the Santa Fe Opera was the initial impetus for the visit to New Mexico. Initially conceived as a private retreat, Taos evolved into a major workspace for expanded stays. There, she found continuous inspiration from the ever-changing vistas, uncompromising grandeur, and spectacular weather patterns of the high desert. These forces and images are invoked in her work through her choice of palette, heightened contrasts, and sinuous contours. It was during one of her drives back from Taos that she would take a four-day movement workshop from the legendary choreographer and dancer Anna Halprin. Sherwood Chen and Hiroko Tamano were other dance artists with whom Ms. Ting had studied. Movement, much like her approach to painting, was an embrace of the ephemeral. “Always a response to the moment,” she said.
From 2000, Ms. Ting divided her time between the studio in Taos and Marin County. The Bay Area provided a connection to family—including her children and grandchildren in Oakland—and a travel base from which she could fly to Hong Kong to visit her mother, which she did twice a year until her passing.
While her career is book-ended by an interest in the expressive possibilities of abstraction, Ms. Ting’s paintings from the 1980s, 90s and early aughts focused primarily on figurative work that explored notions of womanhood, immigration, and a somatic relationship between landscape and place. Embracing the processes of Abstract Expressionism as well as the Buddhist practice of the beginner’s mind, Ms. Ting regularly approached her canvases without any preconceived ideas, preferring to allow the direct application of paint and the subconscious gesture to dictate her compositions. She often worked thematically and in series.
“I am like an irrepressible child, capable of boundless possibilities, when I enter my studio. I thrill at the process of making marks and I relish the meandering that my medium proffers,” she said.
“The work of Mimi Chen Ting melds art and life like no other artist I know,” explains curator Jason Andrew, who had the honor of working with Ms. Tiing over the course of her final year, “Though working strictly within an abstract vein, I see a keen and perceptive understanding of beauty and its translation through a very personal and emotional language. There is so much more to see and learn through her art and performances.”
Ms. Ting held teaching positions at San Jose Metropolitan Adult Education, San Jose State University, San Jose City College, University of California at Berkeley Extension, and more recently at Taos Institute of Art. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 2003 for her performance “How to Make a Book and Eat It Too” at the Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos, NM. In 2012, she was awarded the Agnes Martin Award for Abstract Painting and Drawing from Fall Arts, based in Taos, in 2012.
Her work can be found in public collections including the Harwood Art Museum, Taos.
Aside from being a noted artist, Ms. Ting was a self-described “opera, NPR and chamber music addict.” She loved gardening and science fiction, practiced yoga and tai chi, and thought hard about the world’s most pressing geopolitical and environmental concerns. She is survived by her husband, two children, and four grandchildren.
“There are no fixed horizons,” Ms. Ting said, and so her spirit lives on through her art.