Tina Jordan
December 06, 1991 AT 05:00 AM EST

At first glance she looks like a demure schoolgirl. But when Wang Yani, the 16-year-old subject of A Young Painter, sends her brushes flying boldly across the rice paper, all shyness vanishes. At New York’s Children’s Museum of Manhattan, where she recently demonstrated her traditional Chinese brush-and-ink method of painting, Yani looked downright fierce as she paced before the canvas. But beneath her violent, sweeping brushstrokes, a remarkable picture emerged — four lacy red storks grouped under a gnarled, flowering tree. It was easy to see why Yani was, at 14, the youngest person ever to have her own exhibition at the Smithsonian.

Yani was born in Gongcheng, a small town in southern China; her family has since moved to the nearby city of Guilin. She first picked up a brush when she was 2 and has never had any formal instruction. ”I wanted to paint because my father painted. It gave him pleasure and I thought it would give me pleasure, too,” she explains in a clear, lilting voice through a translator. Her parents, struck by the toddler’s expressive pictures of cats and monkeys, showered Yani with supplies and encouragement. ”I have never missed a day painting, unless I am stuck on a plane or a train,” she says. And even after 10,000 pictures, she is never at a loss for ideas. ”You have only to think of a story, and paint what that story is,” she says.

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