Humans of Harker: The art of living

Michelle Liu understands her world through art


Emily Tan

“As I learned painting more and more, I realized that everything is infinite. The more you look, the more you see, and then you can see life as more beautiful. A favorite quote of mine by Henri Matisse is, ‘There will always be flowers for those who want to see them,’ and that’s one important thing painting has taught me, even though it’s technically you sitting out this canvas with a brush in your hand,” Michelle Liu (’22) said.

Agnes Martin, Henri Matisse, Carl Jung and Victor Askew. Besides all being prominent figures, whether in the world of art or the field of analytical psychology, they are all connected by something else: one of Michelle Liu’s (‘22) many Notion pages, where she compiles philosophical quotes on art and life.

“One of my favorites is by Victor Askew and it’s, ‘painting helps to develop in our nature, a greater appreciation of the ordinary things around us,’” Michelle said. “I’ve been really lucky to be able to spend a lot of my life exploring how to paint. The more you look, the more you see and there’s so many things that I can now appreciate.”

Close friend Gloria Zhu (‘22), who worked with Michelle as an Art Club officer and in Harker art classes, notes the natural world as a significant point of inspiration for Michelle.

“Part of that arises from her artistic training, where she was trained largely to draw from observation,” Gloria said. “She’s used to seeing objects for more than what they are at face value and seeing things around her with more complexity. She will also always express her gratefulness and open my eyes to things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.”

Through her appreciation of the world by painting, Michelle has discovered a certain wondrous quality to every part of her world.

“Even though technically magic in the supernatural sense does not exist, it’s really interesting to understand that the world is still so fascinating,” Michelle said. “The fact of our existence is like a miracle, like how every single person’s face is a miracle.”

Michelle also uses her art to explore the less joyous and inevitable aspects of life. With her Honors Directed Portfolio show her senior year, titled “Brightest Light, Darkest Shadow,” she explored the dichotomies and parallels, the beautiful and the ugly, within her life.

“I started realizing that I’m inevitably going to fail — I can’t be perfect all the time,” Michelle said. “At first I was like, if you can’t have good stuff without having bad stuff, why are people willing to pay the price for it? But then I realized, if you look at the glass half full, then maybe it is worth it. So I keep on going and accept both sides.”

Upper school art teacher Pilar Aguero-Esparza recalls meeting eighth-grade Michelle and feeling struck by her maturity, incredible talent in drawing and painting but most of all, her “depth of feeling,” “inner life” and “concerns about humanity.”

As the adviser for the Art Club, for which Michelle is an officer, Aguero-Esparza also notes Michelle’s strength as a leader and her dedication to using her artistic talents to improve the community around her. From helping to paint a mural for HomeFirst Services, a leading provider of housing and opportunities for the unsheltered in Santa Clara County, to designing and leading a mural calling for “love not hate” in response to the rise of anti-Asian crime, Michelle takes on opportunities to bring both beauty and hope to her environment.

“She has a very strong commitment to working for social justice and using her voice in her art,” Aguero-Esparza said. “That’s such a great way to to use your talents to amplify the voices of those who don’t have it for a cause that you believe in.”

Through her role as co-Editor-in-Chief of the upper school newspaper, the Winged Post, Michelle has found another channel to tell stories through art.

“The pages that we post are just another platform to communicate an idea and figure out how to express the idea while keeping the spirit of the story pure,” Michelle said. “You don’t want flat news stories; you want some kind of element of humanity to be able to shine through words or an image.”

By telling stories about the people around her, Michelle has come to realize that people are like icebergs that show only a small portion of their true selves.

“Even the people around me whom I’ve grown up with for years, there are so many aspects of them that I could never even begin to imagine,” Michelle said. “I like to think that it makes me less rigid and more able to realize that there’s so much more to discover about the people around me under the iceberg.”