A Cultivated Life

On one wall of Kuen Liao’s West Windsor home is a painting of a woman and a boy in the courtyard of an Asian farmhouse, with chickens pecking in the foreground. Mr. Liao painted this scene from memory, and the youngish looking woman is actually the boy’s grandmother.

“It’s a hot area,” says Mr. Liao, 80, who left Taiwan in 1978 with four of his five children and his wife, Shu. (Their oldest daughter was married, and eventually joined her family here.)

Mr. Liao’s work will be exhibited by the West Windsor Arts Council at the West Windsor Farmers’ Market, Princeton Junction Station, July 24, 9 a.m-1 p.m. He is the recipient of the council’s annual award at the Mercer County Artists Show, held every winter in the Gallery at Mercer Count Community College.

The living room is filled with Mr. Liao’s watercolors of landscapes, birds and furry animals. Fifteen of his works are missing because they are on exhibit at the Princeton Shopping Center in the Garden State Watercolor Society’s show. With all this work, it’s surprising to learn Mr. Liao took his first painting classes at the West Windsor Senior Center after retiring from a career as a structural engineer for the New York City School Construction Authorities.

“I went to college at the end of World War II, and people were very poor,” he says. In high school, a teacher noticed his abilities and encouraged him to go to art school. “But nobody went into arts, we just wanted to make a good living.”

Besides taking classes at the Senior Center, Mr. Liao taught himself with books from the library. Sometimes he paints from a photograph, other times he uses magazine articles as reference material, and sometimes he just works from his head — such as a painting of his boyhood home on a rice plantation, which has since become an historic site. “A typhoon destroyed the roof (ornament), but I added it from memory,” he says.

And he has a good memory. But he also has a good imagination. Some of the flowers he paints are, he admits, completely imaginary.

His is a life of beauty and art, making things grow, traveling and being in good health. Along with Mrs. Liao, he takes a one-hour constitutional each morning. He raises orchids and bonsai, and cultivates a vegetable garden in the backyard. The couple travels to Hawaii each year to visit two daughters, and along with classmates from National Taiwan University, they take trips to such destinations as Japan, England, France, Russia and even Montana.

As for that painting of a grandmother and a boy in a courtyard — it sold, much to the disappointment of Mrs. Liao, who had a special place in her heart for it. So Mr. Liao painted another just for her.

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