Lillian Rippa

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Smyrna artist Lillian Rippa is a master of Chinese Freestyle brush painting. Lillian practices her brushstrokes just about every day. She says that this discipline makes her more confident and actually gives her a sense of freedom in her work.

Lillian Rippa grew up in a creative family where the arts were encouraged. Her first career impulse was to become a fashion illustrator. Family came first and then while living in Japan she studied their traditional doll making for two years. Back in the states she eventually studied to become a Montessori elementary school teacher which became her work for many years.

Lillian Rippa:
"That's where my philosophy is. There is no freedom without discipline. And to see that gradually work is so beautiful. And I did all of the art for the children during those years."

"There was a woman who was giving classes at the college in Chinese Freestyle Painting. And, her name was Ming Freedman, and she was such a wonderful artist. My husband pushed e. He said, "Go on. You'll love it. You'll love it." Because, I wasn't satisfied with just western watercolor, and pen and ink; though that is what I was doing. I got so hooked. It was so wonderful, because I was so free. I was willing to work harder than I had in my life to do that. Then I was put in touch with Professor Ju and he was such a wonderful teacher. And he was like my Montessori person: "There is no freedom without discipline."

Lillian says her first year studying with Professor I-Hsiung Ju was the one of the best in her life. At the end of it she was given a solo show. She and her husband became close friends with her teacher and his wife over the years. Since then she has focused exclusively on the Chinese freestyle brush work.

This is closely related to Chinese calligraphy which is only taught to be done with the right hand. Lillian being left handed faced this obstacle with dedication.

Lillian Rippa:
"When you are studying Chinese art, whether it is the freestyle or the elaborate style, whatever style you use, you need to study the four gentlemen. And that is: the chrysanthemum, and the orchid, and the bamboo, and the plum. And they incorporate all the basic strokes that you will need. I had to work, really over a year on the bamboo. That would be the bone stroke which would resemble the calligraphy. And my professor thought that was the way for me to go. There's no pencil on the paper and you have to know your subject. You have to know the strokes you want to use before you start your painting. Then you have the freedom to do whatever you want. But you have to master that. So if I put a stroke down on the paper, and I am not strong or I am weak, or I am not interested, it shows. And, it looks shaky."

Traditional art forms like this have a reverence for everything thing from the process to the materials themselves. The ink, the grinding stone, the brush, and the paper are called the four treasures. In some ways Lillian's painting is a collaboration with other artisans. None of her tools or materials are machine manufactured. The brushes, pigments, inks, grinding stones, even the containers have all been carefully produced by human beings using ancient traditions. They are beautiful in and of themselves. Lillian has invested in a supply of handmade papers, which are becoming harder and harder to find.

Lillian Rippa:
"And the handmade paper, always when I throw it away I say: "I am sorry." Because, somebody during the cold time of the year with the water, would pound all those reeds. pound them and mulch them. It's quite a process. So when you throw a piece of paper away, you don't know how long it took for somebody to pound that to a pulp so they could use it to make the paper. I have enough paper to last me the rest of my life. My paper is from China and I have some form Korea. I am always really careful with my brushes. I always rinse them well. And I always go against the bowl and get a nice point on them before I let them dry. In older times, you know, the Japanese would have a special ceremony when they threw their brushes away."

Despite her modesty Lillian has amassed an impressive body of work. And at the age of 84 she has amazing energy. Lillian practices her brushstrokes just about every day. She says that this discipline makes her more confident and actually gives her a sense of freedom in her work.

Lillian Rippa:
"I can't explain that feeling I have when I paint, when I put that stroke down and it is just so exhilarating. When I decide on a painting, it really has to be something I want to do. So I may not be as prolific as others, but I feel what I am going to paint. I am doing smaller paintings now that I am older. I am doing "Lillian's Garden" I have a beautiful garden outside with all kinds of little things. I'll go out there and look and see what I want. Do I want that big toad out there in my pond? You know, I have iris. I have beautiful things. But I don't paint with anything in front of me. I have to see that. Even if I go out into the woods or a place where there is a stream, I can see that. I can take a picture. But you have to get the essence from that, otherwise you will have a photograph. I have to carry that in my memory. And then I analyze it. Do I need certain strokes? What do I want to show on this? I give it a lot of thought first. All my ink is ground. All my colors are ready. Everything has to be ready. You have maybe worked on some strokes for quite a while separate from this painting. But, when I go to do the painting itself, that has to all be behind me and I have to be able to do that with my soul.""

Lillian has also been an active volunteer at the Smyrna Opera house which now boasts both a performance space and a gallery. Her work was in the Delaware Foundation For The Arts Spring Show at the Hagley Museum in Wilmington in 2016. You can see her paintings any time at the Hardcastle Gallery in Newark, Delaware.