Yi Kai Studio

The Freedom to Create

About the Artist

Born in Changsha (1955), China, Yi Kai showed an affinity for art and drawing at an early age. But at 15, after completing middle school, he was drafted into the People’s Liberation Army in 1970 at the height of the Cultural Revolution. His job was showing propaganda movies for soldiers, paint propaganda post every month, the most challenging work for this 15-year-old boy was drawing portraits from died soldiers and put their portraits for their funeral. For 9 years he spent the remainder of his youth building railways in the countryside. In 1979, Yi Kai joined a pool of 4000 hopeful applicants, hoping to be one of the 35 students chosen to attend the Art Institute of the Army of China in Beijing. Not only did he get accepted but was ranked as the top applicant for his admission year. After 4 years of study, Yi Kai earned his BFA in traditional Chinese painting and stayed on at the institute for 2 years as an instructor. Though trained as a traditional artist, as China opened to the West in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, he became influenced by Western, and particularly American culture, that would become a hallmark of his future works. In 1985, Yi Kai returned to school earning his Master of Fine Arts from the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing. But shortly thereafter, a tide of change would sweep through China and change Yi Kai’s life in a dramatic turn. In the midst of a growing clamor for freedom of expression, thousands of students and supporters, Yi Kai included, marched in the summer of 1989 on Tiananmen Square.

But when the government brutally cracked down on the protesters, killing unarmed civilians, Yi Kai knew it was time to leave. With the aid of the Midwest China Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he had been previously invited as a visiting artist, Yi Kai packed his paintings and set out for the United States. From his arrival at San Francisco in 1990, Yi Kai set out for Minneapolis where, though he only had a cursory knowledge of English, he gained a reputation as an innovative artist whose work bridged the cultural materialism and freedoms of America with the art and politics of his native China. For more than 20 years, Yi Kai developed his talents and style, migrating from the traditional paintings of his education in China to the abstract and colorful works that reflect the influence of American values that have reached all corners of the world. It is this constant evolution of creativity and freedom of expression that drive Yi Kai’s ever-changing experiments in style and that has placed his work in numerous private, business and museum collections around the world. Today, Yi Kai makes Southern California his home where he continues to explore the influence of American and Chinese culture through his artwork.

From his childhood to today, more than five decades later, art has always played a primary role in his life. From painting portraits of Mao in his teenage years during China’s Cultural Revolution, to painting political propaganda posters in the Chinese army when he was 15 years old, to painting Tibetan peoples during the period of economic reform, to his 30 years of living and creating as an immigrant in America – art has shaped every aspect of his identity. Through these experiences, a pattern of observing life, learning skills, and artistic creation have become a daily routine.

Those who were born in China in the 1950s have experienced extraordinary lives. Chinese cultural never recognize each human have the own value. From kindergarten to the end of one’s life, everything was arranged by their parents, teacher, superior…. Each person does not need their own ideas. This is the complete opposite in America. Respect for one’s own values and voices has been the foundation of America as a country and a society.

Keeping his Chinese background and understanding the American value and expressing his new ideas into his painting became the most challenging subject for him. He has worked on this idea for the past 30+ years and he has kept going.

The political suppression of the Mao era, the poor material life, and China’s endless pursuit of capitalism in recent years have been jarring experiences against my own journey of building a new and very different life in the United States. These life experiences across different cultures, social systems, races and ethnic groups are reflected in my artistic process. What I think about most is how to use professional artistic methods to faithfully reflect my life experiences and learnings, while finding resonance with a diverse set of audiences. During the past two years of the pandemic, we could not go outside and engage with the world around us. The only way for me to stay active was to paint and paint some more. Surprisingly, the subject that came to my mind was people.

Human beings interact with one another to form culture and society, which is an essential difference between humans and animals. The most important principles in the interaction between people are sincerity and trust. One of the most terrifying problems of modern society is the loss of trust between people. But in order to survive, we still have to interact with others and seek out mutual dependence. This conflict of maintaining connection in light of distrust gives birth to the many masks that change constantly from person to person, from time to time, and from place to place. My mask series is based on this uniquely human phenomenon. I created a collection of 50 images inspired by this idea of masks in the past 16 months. These 10 images are from this collection, all of which were created in 2020 and 2021.

His approach to an artwork is to first observe, think about a moment’s connection to life at large, and consider what it means to express this experience. When he has an idea, there is a draft drawing. The creation of each work is only allowed to be 70% certain. How to complete the remaining 30% is left open-ended. This approach allows him to maintain a creative mentality towards solving the problem of the picture. He never fully copies his own work. From the beginning to the end of a work, he will explore every possibility and continue to deny himself easy solutions, completing the work in this contradictory state. He has been immersed in the arts for decades, living and working from China to the United States. His work is based on my observations and experience of life, augmented by his own insights. The theme of creation is different in each period of his life. Still, the most common subject of his work is people.

The style of his work is based on lines and shapes instead of light, shadow and three-dimensionality. His use of color is based on the traditional Chinese concept of “coloring according to category” supplemented by the Western concept of using “ambient color.” The layout of the picture is based on the “scattered perspective” of traditional Chinese painting and is free from rigid structures. Perhaps the most unique attribute of his work is the combination of free brush strokes characteristic of Chinese calligraphy and techniques found in American abstract expressionism. In summary, his art is informed by his life experiences and sensibilities. The creative process is a constant pursuit for new meaning without violating his own principles.

Special Collections

  • Pomona College, Claremont, CA
  • University St Thomas, St Paul, MN
  • Hearts On Fire, Boston, MA
  • Warwick Hotel, Paris, France
  • The Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN
  • Medtronic, Minneapolis, MN
  • Key Investment, Minneapolis, MN
  • Hang Seng Bank, Hong Kong
  • SAP American, Philadelphia, PA
  • LeeFon Corporation, Singapore
  • The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis, MN
  • Dorsey & Whitney, Hong Kong Office
  • Minnesota Museum of American Arts, Minneapolis, MN
  • Dolly Fiterman Fine Arts, Minneapolis, MN
  • Piper Jaffray, Minneapolis, MN
  • The St Paul Company, Minneapolis, MN
  • China Times Newspaper, Taipei, China
  • Museum of Fu Tan Po, Osaka, Japan
  • Beijing Art Institute, China

Group Exhibitions

  • 2021 Featured Artist, Itsliquid, Italy
  • 2021 Chan Gallery, Pomona College, Claremont, CA
  • 2020 Artist of the Month, Itsliquid, Italy
  • 2018 Art Museum of Tianjin Academy of Fine Art, P.R of China
  • Three man show in Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong
  • 2015 Alisan Fine Arts 35 years group show, Hong Kong
  • 2012 Los Angeles International Art Expo, Los Angeles, CA
  • San Francisco International Art Expo, San Francisco, CA
  • George Cuttress Fine Arts, CA
  • University of St Thomas Gallery, Minneapolis, MN
  • 2011 Faster Gallery, University of Wisconsin, WI
  • CCAA Museum of Art, Rancho Cucamonga, CA
  • Koehler Gallery, CA
  • 2010 OCCOA Gallery, Orange County, CA
  • 2007 Brand 36 works on paper, Glendale, CA
  • 2005 Powers Gallery, Acton, MA
  • 2004 Powers Gallery, Acton, MA
  • 2003 New American Drawing 2003”, Santa Fe, NM
  • 2002 Plains Art Museum, Fargo, ND

Solo Exhitions

  • 2020 The Progress Gallery, CA
  • 2015 Claremont Graduate University Gallery, Claremont, CA
  • 53 Art Museum, Guangzhou, China
  • Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong
  • 2014 Museum of Art and History, Lancaster, CA
  • 2004 DeCordova Museum of Arts, Lincoln, MA
  • 2003 Gallery Lasietique, Scottsdale, AZ
  • 2000 Alison Fine Arts, Hong Kong
  • Museum West Fine Arts, San Francisco & Palo Alto, CA
  • 1999 Dolly Fiterman Fine Arts, Minneapolis, MN
  • 1998 Museum West Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA
  • 1998 Dai Ichi Fine Arts, New York
  • Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong
  • 1997 Nelson/ Rovzar Gallery, Seattle, WA
  • Orchard Point Exhibition Hall, Singapore
  • 1996 Nelson/ Rovzar Gallery, Seattle, WA
  • 1991 Asian Fine Arts, Minneapolis, MN
  • 1990 Larson Gallery, University of Minnesota, MN
  • 1989 Crown Art Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan
  • 1988 National Art Museum of the Peoples Republic of China, Beijing


  • 2020 Artist of the Month, Itsliquid, Italy
  • 2002 Best of the Show, 6th International Art Competition, Estes Park, CO
  • 2000 Work included in lecture by Elizabeth Brown, Director of National Museum of American Art,
  • 1996 Curator’s Choice, Auction, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minneapolis, MN
  • 1985 Award of Excellence, Beijing Art Exhibition, Beijing, China
  • 1981 Two Bronze Medals, National Art Exhibition of China, Beijing, China


  • 2015 What Goes Around Goes Around Yi Kai’s (catalogue)
  • 2013 Impression of US (catalogue)
  • 2005 Impression Ink Drawing of Tibet (catalogue)
  • 2001 5 paintings were published by Grand Image and distributed by Bruce McGraw, New York,
  • 2001 Time, Yin & Yang (catalogue), Alison Fine Arts, Hong Kong
  • New Paintings by Yi Kai (catalogue), Museum West Fine Arts, CA, USA
  • 1999 A Decade of paintings by Yi Kai (catalogue), Dolly Fiterman Fine Arts, Minneapolis, MN
  • 1997 Painting Album of Yi Kai ( catalogue) Dynasties Art Gallery, Singapore Collection
  • 1989 Painting of Yi Kai ( catalogue) Crown Art, Taipei


  • 2017 – 2020 Working as faculty member in Claremont Graduate University, CA
  • 1988 – 1990 Associate Professor, Central University of Nationalities, Beijing, China
  • 1983 – 1985 Assistant Professor, Art Institute of the People’s Liberation Army, Beijing, China
  • 2021 Chan Gallery, Pomona College, Claremont, CA
  • 2019 Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, China
  • 2018 Tianjin Academy of Fine Art, P.R of China
  • 2016 Claremont Graduate University, CA
  • 2015 53 Art Museum, Guangzhou, China,
  • Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong
  • 2017 Art lecture tour in 4 colleges in China
  • 2014 Art lecture tour in 6 colleges in China
  • 2013 Art lecture tour in 9 colleges in China
  • 2010 University of Santa Barbara, CA
  • 2008 University of Minnesota, MN
  • 2002 University of St Thomas, Minneapolis, MN
  • 1997 University of Singapore, Singapore
  • 1991 University of Minnesota, St Paul, MN