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Exhibit examines the 'Audacity to be Asian in Rural America' at LSC and UMD

Former UMD student Nancy XiaoRong Valentine returns to the area with a watercolor and Chinese ink painting series to share the story of her family's Chinese American immigrant experience in rural western Minnesota.

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Artist and former UMD student Nancy XiaoRong Valentine frames one of six watercolor and Chinese ink paintings she hung in Kathryn A. Martin Library on Tuesday Nov. 30, 2021. The paintings, and six more at Lake Superior College, are on display through Dec. 17. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Nancy XiaoRong Valentine didn't go to the University of Minnesota Duluth for art back when she was a student there in 2010-2013. She was a communications major, a degree which she said she uses every day of her life. Instead she came to art a bit later in life when she needed a place to live.

"I started my artistry seriously because I came home one day in 2015 and someone had broken into my apartment," Valentine said. "I needed a new place to live and had no credit so the only place that would give me a chance were the Kaddatz Artist Lofts."

The lofts, in her hometown of Fergus Falls, are dedicated to working artists. She spoke with the owners there and because she was already creatively inclined, she could move in if she picked a medium and stuck with it.

"So I was like, OK, I pick Crayola watercolors and Hansen watercolor paper because that's all the money I have right now," Valentine said.

Six years later, Valentine has returned to UMD and Lake Superior College with an exhibit about her family's Chinese American immigrant experience created on rice paper using Chinese ink and watercolors that were hand-ground in Japan.

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"But I did get my first grant using Crayola, so don't let anyone tell you it's not a viable medium," Valentine said.

Valentine's exhibit is titled “The Audacity to be Asian in Rural America: we owe you no apologies.” It's shared between the Kathryn A. Martin Library and the Harold P Erickson Library at LSC with six of the 12 pieces shown at each location. The series is part of the Springboard for the Arts’ Artists Respond: Equitable Rural Futures. Each painting contains a symbol from the Chinese zodiac along with other symbols relevant to her family's story.

"I thought this was a palatable way for people to relate," Valentine said. "I picked up the zodiac because it’s something that you can ask someone in a rural space, what do they know about China? They know their zodiac animal. It was the perfect platform to introduce conversations because it reminded them of placemats. That hospitality, the meal and culture sharing, it all felt so easy to connect. It’s a tool for conversations."

The paintings also accompany personal stories from her family about their move from China to rural western Minnesota. Valentine was born and raised in Fergus Falls after her mother moved there while pregnant with her.

"She traveled with me in utero because of China's one-child policy," Valentine said. "When you think about it, any woman alive from that era is a survivor because so many weren't given the opportunity to live."

Valentine's father was a Vietnam veteran from Iowa who had an arranged marriage with her mother in 1991. He passed away in 1996, but planned for her future by leaving her with the resources necessary to pay for college.

Valentine took these stories from her family as inspiration for her paintings. For example, in the painting of the rabbit, she included a series of golden swirls which represent the hoops that she said her family has had to jump through.

"They're hoops of expectations that my family and everyone I've met of Asian descent have to jump through," Valentine said. "And they keep on getting higher. There will always be another hoop."

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Valentine said she hopes that by capturing the stories of her family and sharing them with the wider world, it will help people feel better connected.

"This is my gentle reminder to the world that we do not owe you any apologies simply for existing," Valentine said. "I'm tired of yelling and screaming that to the world. I hope instead that you see the common throughlines in our stories and take from it what you will."

The exhibition will open at the LSC Harold P. Erickson library with a opening reception at noon on Wednesday, Dec. 1. The UMD Kathryn A. Martin Library will also host an opening reception for the work at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 1. The exhibits will be on display through Dec. 17.

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