Love Letter to Dr. Qinqin Liu

A watercolor painting of a ghostly white river winding through colorfully painted, angular rocks and trees.
Dr. Qinqin Liu, Untitled, 2009

My friends like making dark jokes about climate change: “Given that my hometown is currently on fire…” “In fifty years, when we’re all underwater…” “Love that natural sepia filter over the Bay…”

Cynicism about the climate crisis acts as a protective measure. If you assume the worst, you can’t be disappointed. When my mind shies away from anything but the most jaded outlooks, I turn to Dr. Qinqin Liu’s otherworldly paintings of California’s watersheds to remember what we have at stake.

Like me, Dr, Liu is an immigrant from Taiwan. We’ve had to learn to love California instead  of naturally inheriting the innate West Coast pride that born-and-raised Californians exude. Unlike me, she’s an environmental scientist with the California Department of Water Resources. While my climate anxiety stays confined to fretting and reading the news, she made it her life’s work. Liu’s paintings reveal an intimate knowledge of California’s precious rivers and coasts, and radiate an intense devotion built on years of study and respect.

In her “Ocean and Watershed” series, Liu’s delicate, layered watercolors make California freshwater glow, and articulates ghost-pale rivers with streaks of pink and purple. There’s a style of traditional Chinese painting called shan shui, or mountain and water, that calls upon the artist to paint not what they’ve seen in nature, but what nature has compelled them to think and feel. The ethereal shine of her rivers, painted with gentle, overlapping strokes contrasts the harsh lines and clashing colors of the landscape around them. Each painting conveys her respect for California’s most valuable resource, as well as her grief for how quickly the natural beauty of our chosen home could disappear.