Yang Shen, expert calligrapher, succumbs to cancer

Yang Shen was an expert calligrapher who first studied the art in China.

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Yang Shen was an expert calligrapher who first studied the art in China.

David Gantt was eating dinner at the Stockbridge home of friend and then-coworker Joseph Valles and his wife Yang Shen. Shen, an expert calligrapher, showed him the Chinese character for love.

Struck by a sudden notion, he asked her to paint the symbol on his car.

“I thought she’d laugh it off,” he said

But she didn’t. After careful contemplation of his car door, she began drawing intricate, painstaking strokes with her brushes. It took hours of intense focus.

“It was very much like an artist’s process,” he remembered. “It wasn’t like just some drawing.”

Driving around town, he said, some people assumed he was delivering for a Chinese restaurant, while Chinese people would smile and wave.

Lauded for her artistic penmanship and her giving spirit, Yang Shen, 70, died of pancreatic cancer April 16. A graveside service was held April 21. She is survived by her husband Joseph Valles and by sisters Qi Shen and Hui Shen of Atlanta.

The study of the ancient art brought her opportunity and accolades at several stages of her life, said Valles.

She was born in China and worked a grueling job at a cotton factory in her native Nanjing, but her calligraphy gained enough notice that she was able to segue into a job as a museum documents specialist.

After making her way to the United States in 1993, she was working service jobs when she spotted a notice for a position with a Japanese import-export company.

“I told her don’t go there, if they see you’re Chinese they won’t hire you,” said Valles. “I told her to write them and to use her calligraphy.”

“When the manager of the office saw her fax, his reaction was ‘Hire her at once.‘”

She stayed 25 years

Valles thinks Yang could have done more with her talent, saying “She was a great light under a bushel.”

Several factors put the brakes on her advancement, among them a Chinese cultural aversion to self-promotion, and her perceived difficulty with English, family said. Shen turned down a number of offers to teach and exhibit, including that of a college professorship, said her husband.

Still, he said, her bold and florid style gained considerable notice.

While her Chinese zodiac sign was rabbit, denoting a kind-hearted, friendly and skilled nature, she could be a tiger as well, particularly when it came to her art.

Valles recalls their attending an Oglethorpe University lecture where a Japanese calligraphy master spoke. From the audience she stood to challenge him on a point he’d made.

As he recalls. “The Chinese calligrapher (his wife) and this Japanese master had a master debate. They raised their points back and forth in a heated argument in front of about 400 people.”

“The look on the spectators’ faces was amazing. They were agog and their jaws were dropping.”

Shen’s father, a professor of Chinese literature and a press secretary, taught her calligraphy and arranged for her study under a number of masters.

But Yu Fu Shen was sent to a concentration camp after the communists took over. Released after four years, he spent another 20 under house arrest, subject to raids and beatings. The family was plunged into poverty.

“We looked to see if coins had slipped in the couch so we could get a pound of rice for dinner,” said her sister Qi Shen.

When relations between China and the U.S. began to thaw after 1980, their father encouraged his three daughters to leave.

First, Yang Shen studied Japanese, then managed a visa to Japan where she became an accomplished chef both in Japanese and Chinese styles.

She also became expert at sewing — and friends and relatives leaned on her for advice. Her sister remembers her counseling a woman who was about to leave her marriage. Shen helped the couple stay together.

Gantt said that same caring and focus went into her nearly lifelong fascination with calligraphy.

“You couldn’t watch her in action without thinking it was like watching Leonardo Da Vinci at work, “he said.