March 23, 2019
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Portland tech guru turned artist draws on Chinese roots

PORTLAND, Maine — Mei Selvage’s story can perhaps best be told through the analogy of a lotus flower.

It took a move to America and some rude commentary about her accent and clothes to push the Portland technology guru over the edge to becoming one of the area’s fastest rising artists.

But now, through that transformation, she has become a key part of an effort to build community and awareness around Maine’s quietly growing Chinese art scene.

Selvage was born in the shadows of the Himalayan mountains in China’s Sichuan province, during the country’s so-called Cultural Revolution, when art and philosophy were not just discouraged, but considered at times capital offenses.

That no-nonsense upbringing prepared Selvage well for what would become a prolific career in the American information technology industry, where her name is attached to more than 30 patents over a decade and a half, working for powerhouses that include IBM and Gartner Inc.

Despite her expertise in subjects such as data integration, Selvage said she often was skewered when delivering presentations at industry conferences around the country — attendees left anonymous comment cards blasting her accent or clothing style.

Enter the lotus.

“I was just so furious,” Selvage recalled about several of the cruel comments she received. “That’s when I painted the lotus. The lotus grows in the mud — transforming obstacles.”

Selvage had been dragged into the mud and was committed to making something beautiful come of it.

Since moving to Maine in 2010, Selvage, who first arrived in the U.S. in 1997 to finish college in Montana, has exploded as an artist. After more than a decade of work in the very left brain IT world, Selvage’s long-suppressed creativity needed an outlet.

“Working in IT, I’m always on the phone and everything is so virtual,” she said, “So I value this physical experience.”

Now several of her mixed media artworks are on display in the Joanne Waxman Library at Portland’s Maine College of Art, with an exhibit at the nearby Three Fish Gallery to follow in May.

She blends her contemporary state of mind with somewhat romanticized versions of old Chinese culture to create themed printings, paintings and shadowboxes.

“I like to take certain traditional Chinese elements and put them in new contexts,” she said.

Selvage and two partners, Suzanne Fox and Clare Tyrrell-Morin of Fox Intercultural Consulting, have launched a series of Ya Ji events, loosely translated to “East-West.”

The events are quarterly programs intended to highlight Maine’s community of contemporary Chinese and Taiwanese artists — connections between the East (China and Taiwan) and the West (in this case, America’s Maine).

The second Ya Ji event is schedule to take place 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Think Tank co-working space on Congress Street in Portland. The first event, held in November, attracted about 50 people.

“China is going to be the largest economy and the biggest partner with the U.S., and people here don’t have much understanding of Chinese culture,” Selvage said.

One of Selvage’s pieces of art is called “Family Treasures,” which features coins affixed to a primarily scarlet canvas. Similar to her painting, “Fire Lotus,” this one tells a story about life.

Like many people, Selvage had to leave what was familiar to her to discover her passion: In her case, she moved across the world to America before uncovering a love for Chinese art and culture.

“I think when you’re young, if you were born in Maine, for instance, you have this urge to go away and seek something better, to find treasure,” she said. “But only through that process do you realize you’ve had that family treasure inside you all along.”

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