Artist Spotlight: Rebecca Nie

Rebecca Nie is a Bay Area artist whose global adventures, classical training and spiritual practice influence her unique style. Nie’s latest abstract work portrays the stunning coastline of Northern California. Her newest project “Sacred Futurism” involves sci-fi and futurism concepts, driven by algorithms, sacred sounds, and her Zen practice. In this interview, I visited her home studio in California where we discussed her extensive education, the spiritual influence behind her work, and more.


You’ve achieved an exceptional level of formal education. How has your education influenced your work?

It’s really about the concept and the depth. A part of my work is about techniques and craftsmanship, of course, but their conceptual depth comes from observation and understanding of the world. As I paint, I bring forth the whole being. 

My full education really brought me different perspectives. I met many different people who are not in art at all, with different perspectives about the world and who think very differently than me and all of that really helps me develop the conceptual depth and spiritual depth in my work.

I studied math and physics--quantum optics to be precise. I was also at Stanford, where I studied astrophysics. Math is very important to me, and I continue to be fascinated by math. I have a multimedia series that is an algorithm-driven work. That series has a lot of math involved in developing the algorithms that bring about the concept of observations, as well as bringing forth visual beauty and aesthetics. That uses a lot of math. With my study of optics, that really has helped with painting. People don’t tend to think of it this way. Through my study of optics, I can really understand how colors work, in terms of physics and then really bring that understanding into my techniques. So, I use a lot of transparent and translucent paint.

Throughout my formative years, I had classical training in painting and pencil drawing, involving a lot of European techniques, like analysis of form. The students, like me, did a lot of 3D geometry from a young age and a lot of optics, observing lights and such. That really gave an edge in studying math, especially in multivariable calculus. A lot of multivariable calculus is about manipulating shape and form in your mind and expressing them with numbers and equations. 

Besides education, what else inspires your body of artwork?

This current body of artwork is inspired by the nature around us and the coast of Northern California. I do multiple in-air trips to do a lot of sketches, abstractions of the coastline and the waves and landscapes. Then, I synthesize it further and bring it forth on canvas. 

There’s also a spiritual quality to my work, through my Zen practice. It influences a lot of the aesthetics, the palettes, and also the quality I want to bring forth in my work. 

There’s also a lot of East Asian philosophies and aesthetics that come through with my work and people describe it as highly calligraphic and you can see the calligraphic influences in my work and some color choices and palettes. It really is aesthetics. The culture really influences the aesthetics.  


Can you describe the layers of symbolism that are found in your work?

A lot of times I don’t consciously think about symbolism while painting. All of my paintings symbolize the original mind and the flow of life force. I spontaneously end up using nature symbolism like waves; the flow is something that’s meaningful for me. 

Because my work is abstract, I try not to make them too representational. I try not to have prescribed symbolism. I want to create work that allows people to bring their own meanings into it. For example, this piece, for me, really symbolizes the storm and struggles and the wave references. For some people, it symbolizes a mountain path.

I like how different viewers can bring different perspectives into each piece. 


Can you describe your artistic process? 

I really do a lot of on-sight sketching and plein air work. For most of them, I synthesize multiple sketches together in my mind to create a composition on canvas. For the smaller scale work, I will then take the canvas back in plein air and work on a lot of colors and textures on site again and then bring them back to further finish in my studio.

The mental quality to painting is important for me, too. I get myself into a meditative state and most of my work is not done from the conscious or analytical mind, it’s really in the depth of the subconscious.

I get very close to the sea and sketch very intimately with the flow of the water. One time, I had to dash in thirty seconds before the wave came in to submerge the spot I was standing on. I almost got washed away another time. There’s a lot of agility required. I like that sense of adventure and danger and intimacy with nature.

I start with digital sketches and then use mostly acrylic work. On canvas, I use acrylics and mixed media. For my Sacred Futurism piece which I am still working on, I plan to actually combine algorithms into it and develop visual algorithms to work with sacred vocal and acoustic traditions. Then, print the algorithms on canvas and then I’ll paint on top of them again. 

Interior Seascape

Can you explain the relationship between your work and mental health? Whether it be your own mental health, that of viewers and consumers of your work, general concepts, and so on. 

Healing is a very important part of my traditional spiritual life. I believe that as we connect with our inner self, our grand high power, our interconnectedness with the universe is symbolized through my work and I try to express it by channeling and summoning the awakened mind into these paintings. They are spontaneously healing for many people because that is my personal journey. 

I had a lot of problems in my past and it’s really by going deep within the subconscious mind through art and spiritual practice that I found healing. Through my work, I try to express maximum wellness, or ultimate wellbeing, which is a benefit of being enlightened or leading an enlightened life.

What is your most notable piece, in terms of having an interesting story behind it and/or having significant value for you personally?

I recently finished some of the work. It really fell together. This piece, one of my favorites, is called Becoming the Ocean

This one {Flooding the Sky} I really liked too. I did this one in the beginning of COVID and it’s very meaningful for me. It was very emotional. 

My most recent work always excites me the most. This one {Don't Know} is showing in Gallery 12 in San Francisco. I really enjoy the colors and the techniques, as well as the depth of colors and combination of light and cool. 

What do you hope your work conveys for viewers? 

It is an invitation for people to experience the enlightened mind. It really is an amazing state and a maximally connected state but not everyone can tune into that state. It is very meaningful and helpful for me and generations of ancestors before. I'm the 80th generation from the historical Buddha, so it’s also my spiritual lineage that I try to bring about. Part of our vows is life after life, so we work to bring all living beings to this state of wisdom, awareness, and wellness. 

Where Does The One Return To?

What’s next for you? 

 I’m working on an augmented reality concert and mapped video algorithm art with Stanford's Digital Music Department and my good friend Cecilia Wu, who is a professor of Human Computer Interactions at UC Denver. My collaborators and I will then submit it to the 2021 festival of Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States, which is a digital music and new media art festival. I'm also submitting my existing multimedia piece to film festivals. It is done in collaboration with Karlton Hester, the director of Digital Art and New Media Department at UC Santa Cruz. This piece is already featured by various music, new media, and film festivals. In addition, I will continue to paint in the traditional abstract landscape series shown at Siy Gallery while working on the Sacred Futurism pieces. 

I see all my work as an integrated whole. For example, I'm translating translating ancient, spiritual text--8th to 10th century Daoist women’s poetry. Some ideas and imagery in these translated poems are incorporated into my paintings and the practice of helping people connect with their own original nature. It is the innate enlightenment they already have and if they are open to it, it can help them transcend whatever obstacles they face or personal baggage they carry. Through art, I hope to inspire people to let the sacred universe heal them.