By all appearances, Lois Ruppenthal Wethington is a genteel Southern lady, filled with courtesy and enough maternal pride for a roomful of grandmothers. But deep within her lies a Chinese soul, one that comes to life each time she picks up a paintbrush, dabs it in watercolor, and strokes it across a sheet of rice paper.
Over the past fifty years, Wethington has become skilled in the art of Chinese painting, with more than 200 landscapes and images of animals and people to her credit. Her technique is so advanced that some masters of the art, after seeing her watercolors, are amazed to learn that they were painted by a Westerner.
" I had always been interested in art, and I was just drawn to this, because it was different--simple yet beautiful," says Wethington, who first learned the techniques used in Chinese painting in the mid-1950s from refugees who fled Communist China for the Philippines, where her husband, Elbert Wethington, was a United Methodist Church missionary.
Although the language barrier between student and teachers presented difficulties, Lois Wethington immersed herself in the culture and gradually picked up enough Chinese to communicate.
Her lasting affection for Chinese life can be seen in the Wethingtons' home in Durham, where lanterns and other decorative accents fill spaces not already occupied by her paintings.
Learning the Chinese style of painting involves mastering brush strokes that have been codified and passed down for generations. The brushwork is supposed to reflect both movement and serenity in the subject of the work, she says, and students learn the art by copying existing paintings.
" There are no still lifes in China," says Elbert Wethington, a former Duke Divinity School professor. "Everything has life and movement. It's part of a whole world view and the spirituality the culture embraces."
That philosophy is the reason Lois Wethington has continued to paint in the Chinese tradition some forty years after returning to the United States. "There's more behind these paintings than just what appears," she says, pointing to a work in her living room depicting two ducks amid some reeds on a pond--a metaphor for harmony in marriage. "The Chinese way is very disciplined and doesn't allow for much individual expression, but I find ways to add a bit of myself to paintings."
Those bits are rarely seen by people other than friends and relatives. She doesn't sell or exhibit her work often, and most paintings are stored away or are hanging in the houses of her three children.
It was only constant prodding by her older son, Olin, that finally persuaded her a few years ago to write a book about her painting.
He feared that few people would ever become acquainted with her work once his parents died.
The result is Visual Poetry: My Journey into Chinese Painting, which includes photos of about seventy paintings that she picked to illustrate different subjects and brush strokes. She wrote the book in longhand, while her husband served as typist and editor.
In her book, she says she took great care to explain the specific emotion and movement that is conveyed each time she moves the brush across the paper. "I felt that I would have learned more early on if I had understood the meaning behind certain strokes."
Lois Ruppenthal Wethington '46 and Elbert Wethington B.D. '47, Ph.D. '49
October 1, 2003