As an artist, she paints as a way to understand humanity and the complexities that haunt us all as individuals across cultures. Through shades of dark charcoals and strokes of soft whites, the shapes of contorted faces and human skulls slowly pop from more than 100 canvases dedicated to the visual concept behind Lin Fei Fei’s last exhibit, “The Distance Between Black and White.”
There’s beauty in the darkness for Fei, and if you look closely enough, you may find yourself swept up in one of her paintings, tapping into the fluidity between light and dark and what binds us all as humans: our emotions.
“At first, I was just curious about what we’re made of as humans, as far as personalities and humanities. I just want to find out what the truth is,” Fei says. “Skulls for so many different cultures represent death. But for scientists, skulls are studied because it’s our foundation. It’s a place where we can put our thoughts and brain. This is who we are, what we’re built of. I’m not necessarily using the subject as a representation of death or darkness. I hope people recognize it as a foundation of who we are.”
Born in China, Fei recalls touching her nose and studying the shapes of eyes as a little girl before drawing them on paper. At just 7 years old, she knew she wanted to be a professional artist.
Fei graduated from the prestigious Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in Northeast China. As a student, she traveled the world and learned centuries-old tempera painting techniques in Italy using stone powder, egg whites and tree oil. Through her studies, she developed a respect for art history, mixing her rugged elegance with classical approaches.
“For me, oil painting is a very graceful, elegant material,” Fei says. “Acrylics are cool, and other materials are cool, too, but oil can maintain history.”
With a wanderer’s heart, Fei turned down an opportunity to teach at Luxun Academy and moved to the United States in 2015. Besides her partner at the time, Fei says she didn’t know anyone so she began selling art on the street before linking up with Blue Line Arts Gallery in Roseville and eventually branching out into Sacramento’s tight-knit art community.
“I usually try to work with galleries and museums, but when I moved to America, nobody knew who I was,” she says. “For me, it’s all a fun adventure. I feel very accomplished by starting from nothing and becoming something. I just always want to keep humble and keep doing what I’m doing because life teaches me how to maintain who I am. I always remember where I came from.”
In 2018, Fei was tapped to participate in the Wide Open Walls mural festival, an annual event in which local and traveling artists from all over the world paint fresh murals on businesses throughout Sacramento. Fei was assigned Holy Diver, an independent music venue on 21st Street in midtown.
In China, Fei says, graffiti and street art don’t sit well with the government or police. She was thrilled at the opportunity to cover an entire building in her unique aesthetic. It was her first public art piece in the United States.
“I hadn’t done a mural before in public, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turns out, people really liked it,” Fei says. “I enjoy interacting with people on the street because there are no boundaries. When you’re out in public, your work is given to everybody. I love how people stop by and talk to you, from different ages to different cultural backgrounds. Everything’s a surprise.”
In the mural, titled “A Conversation,” two ethereal skeletons face each other against a deep, obsidian background, their long, boney rib cages housing the music venue within. According to Holy Diver owner Bret Bair, Fei’s vision stops people in their tracks.
“Holy Diver is a music venue that primarily produces performances by rock bands, and the aesthetic of the mural perfectly fits the branding and the vibe we wanted to create,” Bair says. “There’s no doubt that the mural has caught the attention of everyday people and helped create awareness for the venue.”
After she completed that mural, Fei says, people began reaching out to her for commercial pieces and other opportunities. She’s since completed more than 30 public pieces in Sacramento and elsewhere around the country. When the pandemic hit, Fei was in the middle of her exhibit “The Distance Between Black and White.” With galleries going dark and people staying close to home, Fei turned inward for inspiration.
She began a self-funded mural project called “Introspection,” for which she traveled from Mexico City to Denver, New York and back to Sacramento, painting murals on local businesses to give people a little hope during a grim time.
“My fine artwork is very focused on people’s emotions, and maybe you see a bit of darkness,” she says. “During the pandemic, I really felt that darkness. Before, I would study experiences, and study my friends and family, and humanities. During this time, I personally strongly felt that darkness. I felt depressed. I think a lot of people did. Everybody feels some level of sadness.”
She worked through those emotions and tapped into them to complete her most recent Sacramento mural. “Introspection Chapter 2,” at the corner of 18th and J streets, depicts a pair of gentle, goddesslike faces in deep thought. Fei used house paint, spray paint and a white towel soaked in water to create dripping paint effects.
“The faces take on different emotions because of the different lights and shadows. So when people look at it, it will always look different depending on what time of day it is,” Fei says. “I feel like it’s a dark time for everybody, so I decided to bring art to the public. I wanted people to stop and rethink and restart.”
As galleries and museums slowly open their spaces, Fei says she hopes to continue to travel and paint outdoors, inspiring introspection in people who happen to walk by one of her captivating murals.
“We have a strong human living in our body. We just need to wake up the spirit and the power to keep us going,” Fei says. “I hope everybody can recognize their giant, and wake it up, and push through and be strong. I feel like we need to tell everybody, ‘Don’t feel weak. You have a giant living inside of you. Wake it up, and we can figure these things out together.’”
Visit Lin Fei Fei Art Space inside Warehouse Artists Lofts, 1104 R St., Suite 120. Open Monday through Wednesday by appointment only; Thursday through Sunday 5–6 p.m.; linfeifeiart.com; Instagram @linfeifeiart.