Kathy Chan Painted Violin with Poster.

The violin is both a work of art and conceals a hidden message that reveals its theme to the discerning eye.

Michael Mercier | UAH

Internationally renowned artist and University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) alumna Kathy Chan has created a new work she hopes will inspire UAH Art and Music students and faculty for many years to come.

Chan’s new piece is a painted violin that features a motif depicting a flowering plant rising from a stylized bowl into a delicate filigree of leaves and blossoms. The painting is also complemented by an arrangement of the artist’s signature hand-selected jewels.

The artist explains that she derived the name of her work by viewing it through the way she experienced music living in various locations all over the world.

“I was born in China, I lived in Brazil, I lived in Turkey, and different parts of the United States,” Chan says. “If you go to China, you have to learn Chinese. In Italy, you learn Italian, or German in Germany. But I found that with music, even if it’s very specific to the region, it is still really universal. You don’t have to speak the language or learn anything to enjoy it. So I gave this work the name “Music, Music, Music, the Emperor of Universal Language.”

Known around the world for her unique craftsmanship in working with jewels, Chan knew early on that she would be ornamenting the instrument with precious stones as well.

“I have done many pieces, memorial pieces, and commemorative pieces of jewelry,” the artist says. “Most of the time when an organization or museum asks me to do something, they just leave it up to me. Whatever inspiration I have, I work with it.”

In this instance, the artist chose 440 seed pearls to define the border of the instrument, a labor of love requiring countless hours of painstaking selection and skill to provide the perfect frame for her musical “canvas.”

Chan also employed eight natural diamonds in the work, each strategically positioned to set off her feathery brushstrokes as a way of highlighting and complementing the painting.

“These small diamonds,” Chan says, her voice rising with an excitement that speaks to the passion she brings to each piece she creates, “they are tiny, tiny, tiny, but very bright! If you look at the violin at an angle, you will see them, as well as the natural pearls.”

Chan and UAH represent a long-standing mutual love and respect that spans five decades, in what has become a cherished “marriage” of the arts and education that has brought untold benefits to the university, Huntsville as a community, and far beyond.

“I was lucky that my husband chose to come to UAH,” the artist says, speaking of Dr. C.H. “Tony” Chan who is an Emeritus Professor of Physics. “I really love Huntsville. Compared to everywhere I have been, it’s still the best. The community, our friends, the people, everything!”

When asked how she approaches the creation of a new work, Chan says much depends on the theme intended for the piece, which she often unites with emotions drawn from personal experience.

“For example, in Huntsville, when we had our tornado, I was right in the middle of it, and the experience moved me, because everyone jumped in and tried to help the people who were suffering. If it’s a historical piece, I work around the history of what has happened to commemorate it. Sometimes I design a piece that is from the environment. What I see is what I design. Or I might take some artistic license, painting the piece, making the sculpture. It all depends on my inspiration.”

In other cases Chan is requested to do a work in which she is given complete freedom to choose her own theme from inception to completion. Such was the case with her latest work.

“When they asked me to paint this violin, I could paint whatever I wanted,” she says. “Usually when people paint something, they just paint flowers, landscapes, but this one has a very intricate meaning related to music and the message I’m sending out. I am very impressed with the UAH music department. I went to UAH many years ago, and I attended art classes, and now it has grown so much, and these two departments have achieved so much, and the students are so much superior. I think this violin will really further inspire them.”

Being adept in a number of different mediums, including jewelry, painting, and sculpture, the choice of medium can be a challenging one, but a “problem” Chan relishes and tackles in many different ways.

“Painting is usually the easiest way to transfer an idea from one person to another,” she explains. “But in deciding how I want to portray a piece, sometimes the jewelry lends itself to the work in ways that are easier than painting. It depends on how I want to express myself. I may decide to use just oil, or I will combine oil with jewelry, or just use gemstones by themselves. It depends on the message I want to send.”

When it comes to employing precious stones, Chan is extremely careful to choose just the right gems to communicate exactly the meaning she intends to convey. When a jewel readily presents itself or is already at hand, the choice of selection and medium can be quite easy. But to the artist’s exacting eye, the “right” stone can make all the difference and take time to discover.

Finding just the right match of form and expression can be a process of years. When Chan looks back on works she has created, at times it appears as if the gem itself has selected the moment of its use rather than the other way around, as if waiting for the perfect fit to best communicate the artist’s vision.

“That is exactly how it happens!” Chan says. “When I travel or go buying, I see some pieces that are really, really unusual. Then I secure them and keep them, and when the occasion comes and there is something that I want to convey or describe, I will use them.”

Coming back to the painted violin, she adds, “Whenever anyone looks at it, it’s a painting with beautiful flowers, a beautiful stand, bowl, and leaves, but really it’s encrypted,” the artist says, her words taking on a tone both magical and delightfully mischievous. “If a person is good at deciphering hidden messages, they will see the words “Music, Music, Music, the Emperor of Universal Language” written there. But it’s not very easy to find!”

The violin will be available for public viewing within the 2020-2021 academic year in the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Be sure to stop by and take the time to examine it closely. Chan’s secret is there, hidden in the gorgeous leaves and blossoms, just the way the best art is hidden inside, closest to the heart, until the artist chooses to release it to the world.

“On the back of the violin I signed it with my Chinese signature,” she says. “There are two seals, my Chinese seal, or chop, and a second seal. The larger one says, ‘I painted this with my heart, and nature was my teacher.’ A lot of things that I design, maybe 95% of them, are inspired by nature.”

Thanks to that inspiration, one thing that is easy to see in Kathy Chan’s work is that, in much the same way music needs no translation to be enjoyed, the same can be said for her art.