Article by Elizabeth A. Cuthbert

Donna Callery is one of Osher’s most popular lecturers. Her Osher courses on the art, architecture, customs, and culture of China have encouraged many Osher members to learn more about this faraway land.

Raised in a small town nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, Donna studied to be a speech-language pathologist. With an advanced degree from Rutgers University, she spent many happy years working with clients affected by speech and communication impediments, all the while following her husband from place to place as his career developed.

In 1997, Donna found herself in Singapore where a “trailing spouse” could not take a job. She began searching for meaningful volunteer work and discovered a docent training program associated with the city’s three major museums.

After completing the rigorous, nine month program, Donna guided tours in both the Singapore History Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum. The following year, she was invited to serve on the docent training team. She enjoyed both experiences so much that she continued guiding and training for the next five years.  

While Donna was studying at the Asian Civilisations Museum, she “fell in love with China.” She immersed herself in Chinese culture, taking private Mandarin lessons and trying her hand at Chinese calligraphy, an art form she found especially difficult. A half-dozen trips to China gave her the opportunity to experience the sights of China first hand including her favorite, The Forbidden City.

One of Donna’s most enjoyable pastimes during her seven-year stay in Singapore was taking painting lessons. Her art teacher called her “The Lotus Lady.” Some of the pictures Donna painted in Singapore were on display in the Osher office this summer.

Donna trained in both styles of Chinese Brush Painting: Fine Line and Free Style. When painting in the Fine Line style, Donna would select a Chinese painting from an illustrated book and draw it freehand. Then she would place a piece of silk over the drawing and paint the outline directly onto the silk using black ink, filling in with brushstrokes of different intensity.

Donna always ground her own ink. She would put a few drops of water in the depression of a traditional Chinese ink stone and then rub her ink stick over the wet stone. Since Chinese artists believe inspiration travels up the arm during the ink grinding process, Donna did not want to omit this important step.

Part of Donna’s fascination with China comes from the way its culture imbues objects and events with meaning. Nothing is done by accident, she says. Everything is done for a reason. The Chinese purposely leave empty spaces in their paintings. For them, “emptiness is not nothingness.”

This “philosophy” inspired Donna to paint one of the pictures she exhibited this summer, a boat approaching an island. The island, with its well defined hills and trees, sits on the far right side of the picture. In the center of the painting, a small boat is shown heading towards the shore, traversing a vast, empty space with not a ripple or wave in sight.

Donna is now busy working on another Osher project, a tour to China tentatively scheduled for October 2016. The itinerary is likely to include Beijing (with visits to The Forbidden City and the recently opened Qianlong Garden), the Great Wall of China at the Mutianyu site, Shanghai, Xian (the terracotta soldiers), Guilin, and Suzhou. If you want to learn more about this exciting trip, please contact Peggy Watson at the Osher office or Donna at