BANGOR, Maine — Lihua Lei could not stop smiling Friday as she opened a new chapter of her life by becoming an American citizen.
She was one of 33 men and women who left the 20 nations in which they were born for new lives in the United States to take the oath of citizenship.
“I almost cried, I felt so touched,” Lei, 46, of Solon said after the event, held in U.S. District Court at the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building. “This country welcomes everybody. It embraces everybody. I don’t know of another country that does that. Here, you can express any idea. I am free to do so.”
A sculptor and installation artist, Lei said that she came to the U.S. in 1991 to study art therapy. A few years later, her studies brought her to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and she stayed in Maine.
Born in Taiwan, Lei contracted polio when she was four months old, according to a 2001 Bangor Daily News profile. The disease left her with one leg markedly shorter than the other. As a small child, Lei was unable to stand. Her job on her family’s rice farm was to sit at the edge of the field and scare away scavenging birds. Today, she walks with arm crutches.
“People’s first impression of me is a stereotype,” she said 11 years ago. “They see my handicap. As a result, they miss a lot of me.”
Her installation art, however, has been noticed. She was a 2008 honoree of the National Women’s History Project in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“Lei’s installations are not only derived from her own personal experiences and memories, but also from inspiration drawn from other artistic sources,” her biography for the Women’s History Project said. “Her [artwork] invites the viewer to consider the vulnerabilities and transformations of the body.”
Lei said Friday that her transformation as a citizen would allow her to obtain a passport and make it much easier for her to travel outside the U.S. to promote and exhibit her work.
The artist is known internationally for her often temporary art, according to the 2001 article. She has created carvings on the banks of streams that have been washed away within days. She has frozen pages of her journal inside blocks of ice, revealing her words as they melted.
About 1,200 people become citizens in Maine each year, said Sally Blauvelt, field office director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Portland. Forty-two Maine residents became citizens earlier this month in a ceremony at Lewiston Middle School, she said.
In addition to Taiwan, the men and women sworn in Friday came from Bosnia, Cambodia, Canada, Congo, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Poland, Slovenia, Somalia, South Korea, Sudan, Thailand and the United Kingdom.
Retired BDN reporter Sharon Kiley Mack contributed to this report.