Flo Li, born Artist

Posted on 11 October 2016   Artists, Interviews, News

Born in the Academy of Fine Arts

Knowing the Artist
To get to know an artist is not easy because the work of art is a personal experience of the world. The artistic work reflects the image of life and thought-emotional attitude of the artist towards it. Artistic language gives a new dimension to the life and our understanding, enriching it. The greater unity between content and form is, the stronger and more complete experience of the artwork becomes, as well as the difference of the levels of meaning. While exploring the unique artistic expression, I’m always trying to know the artist better, in order to fully present her or him to our audience, seen through the light of its personality and life experience. To come to know Flo Li was a big and beautiful challenge. We’ll start the journey with this Sutra, dear to Flo Li:
To see the entire universe in a single flower, to see each leaf as the body of enlightenment.

Flo Li

Author: Flo Li

Heart of a Child

Flo Li, you are the artist. Please, let us know about your first steps in art. I’m sure the beginning must be very deep in the past because I saw your new photography series and I can even catch the “energy” coming out of them. But, please take us first to the beginning of your art journey.


Flo Li, first day in Elementary School

I was born in the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, China, 1978. My mother was the academy accountant who was in charge of passing out payroll while finishing up her own degree in Visual Arts.

According to my mother, because of her busy schedule, she took me to work and to some of her art classes when I was just one and a half years old. To keep me occupied, she would always bring colored pencils, markers, and a stack of scrap paper for me to draw on. When the academy professors come in to pick up their paychecks for the month, while waiting in line, each of them would draw with me on my scrap paper and sometimes even hold my hand to teach me how to draw.

When I was about three years old, I started attending the academy childcare. The head nanny took all of the children to art exhibitions regularly. My mother said I would come home and always be excited to tell her that I saw fat naked foreigners, strange looking sculptures, and splashes of colors with no shapes.

I remember months before my sixth birthday, my Godmother – who lived next door since I was an infant, brought a fancy large notebook for me to draw in. She asked my mother never to restrict me in my unique expression, and have me draw whatever I wanted and however, I wanted to. I filled up the notebook quickly and my Godmother would always give me a new fancy notebook to trade for my old used one.  

The Notebook for Drawings

When I turned 25, Godmother gave me back my first notebook, which Godfather named “Heart of Child”. Thinking about how they had kept my childhood drawings all these years is very touching.

Flo Li's Childhood Notebook

Flo Li’s Childhood Notebook

Flo Li’s parents and the role of her Godmother

Tell us about your family and the place you lived during childhood. Who influenced you the most? Your mother? Your father?

We lived partly on the campus of Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts (西安美学院) where my mother worked, and partly in the Xi’an Conservatory of Music (西安音) where my father was the choir and orchestra conductor. Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts was in the countryside back then. My grandmother would take me to the river beyond the cornfields to listen to the frogs at night while counting stars. My father would take me to the river during summer time to get suntanned and learn how to swim. My mother would take me hiking up to the mountain behind our home whenever she could get off work early. We had a vegetable garden in our front yard where mom planted sunflowers, bamboo, peas, and carrots. We had a guesthouse in the back where the nanny sometimes lived with my baby rabbits and chickens. We didn’t have running water. So it was always exciting when I was allowed to fetch water from a nearby outlet.

The Goddess embodied the vastness and spaciousness of nature

GodMother's "Goddess"

“Goddess” painted by Flo Li’s GodMother

I think the person who influenced me the most was my Godmother and her art. There’s something about her art – unlike her famous husband’s art of perfect form and penmanship, her art always had the power to put anyone at ease with its lack of emphasis on boundaries. Godmother spent 15 years in the caves of Dunhuang before obtaining her professorship in the academy. She drew dancing goddesses that felt as if they were jumping out of the page with their vibrant carefree bliss. The goddesses embodied the vastness and spaciousness of nature. I wanted to be a part of their world and I thought I would learn to paint the goddesses like my Godmother. But she was adamant about not having me follow her path – she said I must find my own artistic existence.

Taking my own photos…


Flo Li in her father’s arms, grandmother, and mother

As for photography, my father was the influential figure in my life. We were poor, but my father saved enough money to purchase a second-hand camera from a professor at the art academy. We would go out for hikes with his camera and later come home to develop our photos in our home darkroom. I still remember waiting for the photos to develop and the scent of that darkroom. When I was very young, my father gave me a keychain camera I could click through to see beautiful nature photos. So I used to pretend I was walking around taking these photos. One time I was so excited about “taking my own photos” I tripped and fell on my face. My keychain camera bounced off the ground and broke into pieces. I didn’t want to go home because I knew I would get in trouble. So I sat there in the dirt, spent hours in the hot summer sun, and finally fixed my camera.

Great change, moving from China to the United States

What was your professional education choice? School, university or academy? And why? What did it give you? Let’s try to see it through the eyes of something we can define as a profession and also in terms of spirituality, because this is what I’m finding in your art.


Flo at age of 5, 3rd from the right

Thinking of that story of fixing my keychain camera as a child, I guess I was good at fixing things – even though I didn’t enjoy it. When our family moved to the United States in 1990, I didn’t speak a word of English. Because I started reading music and playing the piano before the age of three, I became very good at mathematics – and I used the language of mathematics to communicate when my English fell short. During high school, I excelled in mathematics and later I wanted to choose a major that was heavily rooted in math. At the same time, I wanted to know about Life and discover the source of creation. I started studying Biophysics at the University of California, San Diego and later transferred into Bioengineering. The first research paper I published was in the field of confocal microscopy. So I was able to do colorful photography in the field of microscopy while exploring smaller cellular structures and micro-vascular connections. In a way, I was able to watch the world of life moving under the microscope, yet, I still did not understand Life.

After deciding not to pursue the Ph.D. post master’s degree in Bioengineering, I went to work for a company researching and developing medical diagnostic devices. From there, I obtained several engineering patents and had a chip on my shoulder about how smart I was. I was pretty obnoxious.

Exploring aspects of duality in life

You were living in China. Now you live in the USA. Tell us more about your life journey.

flo_editedI came to the United States when I turned 12. Now I’m 38. So I would say I’m more American than I am Chinese. I can say I had such certainty about life when I was pre-teen and now I no longer have certainty – instead I have freedom. Things in China seemed to be so defined and I never felt at home and I never felt I fit in. Instead, when I lived in China, I often visited temples because the scent of incense made me feel at home – where there was no excess noise, no judgment. I felt I had to conform in China and now looking back there’s no way I could have developed my own style of artistic expression if I still lived in China.

Life in the USA is more chaotic, not as well planned, but somehow the diversity and messiness of this country promoting an organic formation of unique self-expression. This country is like a fractal – order from chaos. In this country, I can major in engineering and minor in psychology and theater while taking a morning ballet class before medical device design. I can mix and match whatever my heart desires and the outcome does not have to be planned and secured. There’s more room to explore.

I think my life journey is about exploring different aspects of duality in life – between the right brain and the left brain, between control and freedom, between stillness and movement, between mathematics and the visual arts, between form and the formless.

The world as a playground

I know that in China, as well as it was once in my country, sport or better put, the movement of the body, was considered as important as mathematics or literature. So, give us the larger picture of your experience and if that gave you important values and made your artistic journey richer?

Growing up, my parents realized I was not very sporty so they stopped forcing me to attend table tennis camps, lap swimming practice, and gymnastics. During my elementary school years, I was selected to participate in long-distance running and I always came in last. My body was weak and I got sick often. Perhaps that’s why my parents focused me on the intellectual life instead. Also, there was a saying among the intellectual friends of my father, “if you understand mathematics, physics, and chemistry, the world is your playground.” So my father was looking into a scientific study for me for sure.

Every day after school and after homework, I practiced the piano for two hours. After dinner, I would read and then go to bed. Physical Education class was the toughest as I couldn’t throw a ball or do a push-up. Growing up I was not physically inclined by society standards. Instead, I ran in the gardens amongst the butterflies, I swam in the river racing the fish, I climbed up trees to read books.

Later in life around my early 20s living in San Diego, I took up marathon running, century bike rides, and triathlons. I found myself excelling in a supportive environment outdoors in nature. Then I also found yoga to be enjoyable. Now aikido is a big part of my life. Most definitely having a healthier body and being more physically active allowed me to experience life more easily. In a way, aikido helped me to discover that my body is capable of movements I’d never dreamed of, by simply following the flow of ki (energy). The mindfulness aspect also helped me to heal physical injuries as I began to move more gently, and more naturally – with less effort and constraint, with less tension and contractions – instead, as my body started moving more in the flow of ki, life became more vibrant, and life became more joyful naturally.

A unity of My-Self

I’ve read in your bio that at a certain point you had an accident and something changed in you forever. What happened? Have you found union between such different cultures and experiences? How about in your consciousness, given we know that the subconscious can be fundamental for artists? Was the accident that “opening the door” for the new light?

I was in a serious cycling accident during the 2006 Wildflower Half Ironman Triathlon Race. I was racing downhill in the last 10 miles of the bike course going way too fast down the curved steep slopes of the road. I lost control and hit face first into the ground. 

I went unconscious. When I woke up, lots of people stood over me and were trying to load me into an ambulance before transferring me into a helicopter. They told me I was losing a lot of blood and must get to the hospital quickly or else I wouldn’t make it.

Yet I felt no despair within me, I had a spiritual awakening that opened up a new dimension within my consciousness. I was high. I was in bliss. And I had no pain. It was like I protected myself with a hard-shell all of my life and the cycling fall broke me open. Having myself cracked open, I was able to see a light that has always shined from within.  This opening allowed my unconscious to no longer be in the dark. The unconscious floated to the surface and united with the conscious; there was a recognition; there was a unity of My-Self. Then I experienced unity with all things as ONE. Like the famous Albert Einstein quote:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

I experienced that and still experience an even greater opening within me. It allows me a clear seeing beyond the delusion of separation. It allows me to break free from my mental prison, and live a new life filled with love and wonder. 

Flo Li - Flowers

The life beyond the structures

What was the key: visual arts, aikido, yoga? Or was it the mathematics? Can we talk a bit about it? And let’s try to define your art under the light of all this you’ve told us by now.

I think each segment of my life was very nicely orchestrated to get me where I am. Visual arts, mathematics, my accident, yoga, aikido, photography, or even the friends I had from different phases of my life – they were all contributing factors to getting me where I am.

Godmother told me when I was very young:

ART cannot be a performance based on externally defined elements, ART has to be a true expression from within – after you come face-to-face with who you really are.

So throughout my entire life I was walking inside the logic of society-imposed structures and always failing in life, and after my cycling accident, I discovered a much larger Life that actually happens beyond the structures.

The Inner revolution

You’ve said that each segment of your life “was very nicely orchestrated” to get you where you are. This is something that “happens” only to the conscious people, to see the meaning in signs on the way along their life journey. So, your Godmother was right when she said you have to face your real Self to enter real ART. And it’s always from the inside. But we can also connect through external events as you crossed that invisible line through the accident. Tell us about the moments of crescendo in your “Life Music” before it turned into a “Spiritual Melody” – the highest possible language we can use to express ourselves.

As you can probably guess there was an inner revolution already happening, leading to the moments of crossing that invisible line.

Flo Li in actionExternally my life was falling apart even though I tried so hard to keep it together. I was about to marry my boyfriend of nearly 6 years. Then one day, I freaked out and he moved out. While packing, he said something I will never forget – “I don’t even love myself, how could I ever love you?” It was shocking; the depth of that truth was shocking. I never felt at peace with him. He was also an engineer, very critical by nature. He battled depression at the time. He and I were dance partners and we had an incredible physical connection from the start. And sometimes we would have a wonderful intellectual connection as well. But I never felt I was able to connect with him on a deeper level. The type of intimacy I craved was not what he was able to offer. I thought we were good enough for each other to settle down with. But things didn’t work out.

On the other hand, my science boss sparked my interest as a spiritual seeker. Our scientific research edged the unexplainable. Naturally, quantum physics brought us into the doorway of the spiritual realm. My boss and I had endless discussions from human nature to science to art to music to Buddhism. Our friendship grew based on our mutual curiosity in seeking to understand Life itself. It was a very innocent intellectual and spiritual friendship. There was certainly love – the type of love that transcends physical love – the type of universal love that was becoming awakened as I touched a deeper dimension within myself. Later I found out his wife did not approve of our friendship because our connection breached the unspoken agreement of his already weak marriage. I was labeled as the other woman and I had to face her emotional abuse day after day. It was the most painful period of my life.

I was on the top of the world

During that time I went on acting like everything was fine. Externally speaking my life was going great – I was financially stable; I had many friends; I had an amazing career; I was sporty and fashionable; I had engineering patents under my sleeve; there were many eligible young men chasing after me. So externally speaking I was on top of the world. During the day, I worked for the Chief Scientific Officer of a booming biotech company, I would socialize with coworkers and do my high visibility work, and after work, I trained for hours and hours to prepare for my half ironman race. I always had a smile on my face. But internally, I felt more and more anxious, stressed, and uncertain. I felt like I was heading into a dark storm and I would not survive it.

Heading into a dark storm

As I worked away during the day on scientific research papers to support my innovation, I came across the Journal of Near-Death Studies – it was categorized as scientific research. Naturally, I was intrigued but quickly dismissed it as implausible as it lacked proper scientifically obtained data. It was pseudoscience. I took it to my colleagues and we all had a good laugh at the journal’s scientific claims through the individual recollection of memorable events.

That was particularly interesting because three weeks later I was unfortunately presented with a similar experience as I crashed on my bike during the race. When my body was knocked unconscious another part of me was completely awakened and alive. During the unconscious period and hours after, I felt more alive than I had ever felt. You could even say I was truly alive for the first time in my life.   

Microscopic Expressions of Spirituality

That aliveness most definitely gave you the creative outlet to communicate your message through your art. Please show us the phases of your art and please give us several examples of each. And if you had exhibitions, where were they and what titles did you gave the images?

Flo Li's drawing

Flo Li’s drawing

Initially, when I was resting at my parent’s house without sight out of my left eye, I was losing hope about my recovery. So my mother brought out her old set of silk paper with Chinese watercolor to get me comfortable seeing again. Slowly I was able to feel the texture of the paper and the expansion of colors. One day I was just playing around and drew three women (probably just different aspects of myself) using Chinese watercolor. My intention was to toss them into the trash when I was done because I was not happy with them. Somehow my mother felt the need to keep the drawings and even got supportive backing added onto the delicate silk paper from the framing store. Ten years later as I was cleaning out my garage I found the drawings. The funny part is these three women in the drawings turned out to be three of my best girlfriends I met later in life, and they are also embarking their own spiritual paths. So I was out of space-time when the drawings were done. I thought that was interesting.

Two months after the crash, I slowly gained more sight, and I was able to do more intricate drawings with smaller brushes while still feeling the texture of silk paper and watercolor (photo bamboo).

Flo Li's painting

Flo Li’s painting

Microscopic Expressions of Spirituality – a walk of subtleness on the road of fractals

As I started MBA school after three months of bed rest, I had a renewed appreciation for art so I started to play around with programming chaos functions to create shapes. Later on, I discovered some fractal programs that were way more sophisticated than my own programming. As I wrote my thesis for MBA school I would “procrastinate” from time to time to play with fractals. One day my dad’s artist friend found the fractals in my Google account and urged me to publish a book. So I did – with the help of the head of the librarian of Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts who was also a respected Art Historian. He said he saw something spiritual in the fractals and he wanted to support the publication. He had two of his top scholar layout the book and translated this book into Chinese as well. After a week of nearly no sleep, we finished production of a limited 1,000 copies of “Microscopic Expressions of Spirituality – a walk of subtleness on the road of fractals”.

Then coming back to San Diego I was invited to speak about the fractals on Art Radio with Philly Joe Swendoza. Then I had a solo show in Generic Gallery called “Microscopic Expressions”. Lots of philosophical discussions and spiritual discussions happened and a few pieces were sold. Then I had a group show in Mosaic.

Click on the foto to enlarge

The Harmony and Duality

Then the following year I had a large solo show in Xi’an Academy of Fine Art, China called “The Harmony of Duality”. This particular show was a lot of fun with the interested press, public, artists and art students all giving reviews of the spiritual nature of my work. Two pieces of my work were collected by the academy (see the last photo from above).

The best part of the show was on a private day during an interview with Godmother and the press. Godmother held my hand and told me I was beginning to discover the Self – and it was evident in the work.

She said my Buddha (photo below) looked and felt like her Buddha – the form is different but the art is coming from the same source. She was in tears.

I continued with paintings and calligraphy after fractals moved out of my system. The form didn’t matter to me – I was looking for the feeling – a feeling of oneness, harmony, and love. I was looking to capture the formless.



Flowers were in love with me

During Thanksgiving 2011, my father finally purchased me a Nikon D3000 after seeing a few photos I took using my mother’s camera. He decided it was a good investment because he said I was able to see what others cannot see. As you know, my previous experience with the camera in science was attached to a microscope in a darkroom so it was a bit of a challenge at first to see the world anew. Naturally, I was attracted to flowers and their fearless beauty and graceful opening. This photo (photo “Passion”, below) was one of the first photos I took with my new camera. I went on to photograph different flowers over the years without knowing why. It felt as if I was in love, and the flowers were in love with me.



Then a friend asked me to take photos for her website, and other people started asking me to take photos for their families, pets, and business projects. So I begin working as a photographer on the side.

One of the best projects

One of the best projects was taking photos for my friend Mary weeks before her beloved fur baby of twelve years passed away with cancer. The emotional richness in the photos showcased LOVE. Even to this day I still go look at the photos from time to time. 

Flo Li - Dulce

So now I’m in a phase to take inventory of my life since my cycling accident. I have been given a second chance to live and I cannot let it go to waste. I’ve learned that my life in the past was constantly motivated by goals and my focus was always on perfect structure and form. It distracted me from feeling deeply with my heart. So as I was on my deathbed 10 years ago, I regarded my life. I was not open enough to feel all aspects of life – a hug, a smile,  laughter; the wind, the waves, the sun were all taken for granted. I didn’t want to die before I had truly lived. I vowed to open my heart if I could have a second chance to truly love, to truly feel, to truly live.

Beginning to glow from the inside

Which image defines you in this moment if you have any? Why am I asking? It’s because your extraordinary depth is still to be told. So being Chinese and American now is one important heritage for the artists that will come, and have still to fight to survive the “Self-Point”. You did and you told us about it in the previous answers. Because at your level, the entire work is possible to translate and define symbolically, and nobody better then you could express it that way. I see it through your last work “A dream of Pink and Purple”. Please tell us more.

I think my latest facebook profile photo is the best representation of me right now. It feels like I’m beginning to glow from the inside as my heart is more and more open. This is not at all a contrived way to be pretty, but an inner peaceful radiant vitality that feels very calming, warming, serene, and loving. As for my work, I feel the flowers are beginning to represent how I feel as a part of this life. This new series ofA Dream of Pink and Purplerepresents the long journey of my physical, emotional and spiritual healing as the bloom is like the opening of my heart – each blossom is a small reminder to keep opening, keep loving, keep living – with a brave heart, and to never close down again.

Flo Li Flower

Exploring my personal Buddha-Hood

I think being Chinese American helped me to find the spiritual side of myself. It doesn’t box me into something constricting but instead it frees me to explore. The Chinese side of my childhood, especially Godmother’s Dunhuang Buddha paintings, gave me the yearning to explore my personal Buddha-hood – not as a religious symbol but as a tangible state of feeling, a state of being. It’s like in science, there’s water as ice; water as room temperature drinking water; and there’s water heating up into gas as in steam. I’m still the same person but my state of expression is completely different. Similar to the expansion that occurs from running water to steam, I’ve also expanded – like the expanding universe. A universe in a single atom right? Now that universe within me is also expanding.

Walking up to the essence of who we are

I love to ask artists about time, their time, as I’m sure that the vision is not the property of many, but just a few. Where do you see yourself in 5 years? And if you would like to help the artists who are now facing the problems of being real Artists and not just “externally exposed”, what would you suggest to them?

In the past, I’ve been so focused on career and never thought to have children, a husband and a family would be fulfilling. Now I feel differently. I hope to become a wife, a mother, a woman who can love the whole entire universe. And I want to continue to express my love outwardly – through my writing, my photography, my aikido, or any form that can be useful to inspire a little bit more love in you. I see myself bigger with love in five years.

Flo Flower

Some artists are expressing their inner pain, some are expressing their brain, some are expressing a need for approval, and some are expressing cultural struggles, some are documenting history. I think there’s a place for all types of art. To truly make a difference in the world, we have to dig beyond the superficial layers of personal concerns and truly meet ourselves at the deepest level. The most amazing people I’ve met in my life have always been the people who have faced their pain and suffering at the deepest level and have come out the other side better and more alive. To truly touch someone, to truly make a difference in the world, one must wake up to the essence of who we are – the collective us.

All of Life is my resource

Give us some of your “resources” such as wise ideas, books, music, or practice you do to keep your art flowing strong.

I’ve been a yoga practitioner for a long time. I’ve moved away from sports yoga to the ancient form of Isha Yoga with the most profound meditative quality. It allows me to move my energy in such a way that clears my mind and calms my heart. I’ve also learned so much from life, from pain. In the past 10 years, I’ve had some “acceleration courses” in love and pain. Whenever I allow myself to truly feel the pain without closing down, I come to a new understanding – a new summit of consciousness. When I get my heart broken, I become bigger in love. The most amazing part is the people who I thought had hurt me the most in life are actually my best teachers. And I am thankful.

A dream of pink and purple

Flo Pink

I used to be a lover of books – especially science fiction — since childhood. Sometimes I still read, but I prefer to feel nowadays. I understand the energy of the authors and it feels l know their consciousness as just a part of my own – what Carl Jung referred to as the collective unconscious. In my case, I would call it the “collective consciousness”. I think aikido also helps me tap into another person’s feeling zone. To truly sense someone’s physical tension, openness, and balance gives me insight into his or her psychology, his or her personal struggle, as well as a pathway to expand my love into their hearts.

And of course my lovely Baby Doggie. Her unconditional love and doggie kisses can turn the toughest day into the most perfect, sweet, warm embrace. Her love lifts me up.

All of Life is my resource. Click To Tweet

Thank you so much Valerija for your keen insight and thoughtful questions. You have also been a wonderful teacher on my journey to find all the forgotten pieces of myself. I am grateful for your work in the art world and your service to all people.


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