Nancy X. Valentine: Beyond Pretty, Beautiful Chaos

The Rural Regenerator Fellowship brings together individual artists, makers, and culture bearers, grassroots organizers, community development workers, public sector workers and other rural change-makers who are committed to advancing the role of art, culture and creativity in rural development and community building. We recently asked a collective of local writers to sit down with current Rural Regenerator cohort members to share more about their work.

In the small town of Fergus Falls, MN, Nancy XiáoRong Valentine (she/her) discovered her artistic voice and vision through a series of unfortunate events. In 2015, her apartment was broken into. She needed to move quickly and didn’t have a lot of money. In response, Kaddatz Artists Lofts offered her an unusual solution: they would let her rent an artist loft, and because it was an artist loft, she would have to dedicate herself to an artistic practice. Even though she’d always seen herself as a creative person, she had never truly poured into art. Also, she didn’t have a lot of money for art supplies. So she went to Walmart and bought watercolor paints for ‘like 89 cents and paper was like three dollars.’ And began to teach herself how to paint. 

‘When I first started I had zero confidence … so I went on to Pinterest and just found a bunch of different – a wide range of watercolor styles: representational, abstract, just to see what was out there…Throughout my life I have never been a super refined creator. I don’t like to color in the lines, I like screen printing that is off in registration, I’ve always been drawn to graffiti or more of these not so ‘sophisticated’ aesthetics.“

As I am looking over her latest paintings, I see reflections of her own unique story  – a life story that has been ‘off in registration,’ that has found unexpected paths to personal and intergenerational healing, that has moved outside of social and family expectations in order to find her unique vision and voice.   

During the era of China’s one-child policy, Nancy was conceived as the second child of a family living in Lanzhou, Gansu. Her mother immigrated from Langzhou to Fergus Falls, MN in order for Nancy to be born. “I’m biracial so I have a white father and a Chinese mother, and in my household because my father passed away three and a half years after I was born, my mom and my brother and my grandparents–who came over to help raise us–were very Chinese. And so I had this really unique experience as a biracial individual.”

Fergus Falls has a tiny Asian-American community – 0.4 percent; 58 Asian-Americans live in the town. “Growing up I was the ‘model minority,’ I ascribed to that (identity) and I fulfilled the expectations that were placed on me …I assimilated as much as possible, tried to fit in as much as possible, which didn’t always work…(she laughs for a second)” She goes on to say that the Fergus Falls community in which she was raised, “has these ideas of who I am based on this person, this mask that I was putting forward. My Chinese side has always seen me as a little bit too white to be Chinese – I always dyed my hair funky colors, had tattoos – I’m well mannered but also very outspoken…I don’t ‘get along to go along’ very well.” 

It wasn’t until she went off to college and began to surround herself with a diverse group of people, including other Asian-Americans – that she began to appreciate elements of her Asian identity. She did an artist residency in Japan in 2017, and there she felt  “a resonance to a way of life. That softened me to recognize that I needed to do some racial reconciliation within myself toward my Chinese culture.” 

When she first started painting watercolor, she was trying to make something pretty, something that she thought her community wanted to see. But as she gained more confidence in her abilities and in a deeper relationship with her Chinese ancestors, she realized that that desire for ‘pretty’ contrasted with her insatiable curiosity about herself, her stories, and her “true desire to keep learning and that means playing with new mediums, trying new things.”  

The Audacity to be Asian in Rural America: we owe you no apologies

In 2021, she received an Artists Respond: Equitable Rural Futures award from Springboard for the Arts with which she created a series of 12 watercolor and Chinese ink scroll paintings on rice paper called, The Audacity to be Asian in Rural America: we owe you no apologies. It tells the story of Nancy’s Chinese American family’s immigrant experience to Fergus Falls. 

A photo of a painted cloth that reads The Audacity to Be Asian in Rural America, Nancy Xiaorong Valentine
Credit: Nancy X. Valentine, 2021.

Working on that series was personally and artistically transformative. “This was the first time I was pulling something out of me because I had something to say.” She says ever since 2021, it seems like every painting she makes comes with even more pieces of her authentic voice. “Sometimes that art work manifests as something pretty, but more often than not lately, it’s been something that’s not pretty, but it’s beautiful … It might be more chaotic in stroke and mark making, it might be mixed media, it might include some themes that I am really trying to process through from my childhood.” It was this opportunity from Springboard for the Arts that gave her the space and support to recognize that her painting could be an avenue not just for self-expression, but also as a deep archive of her mother’s lineage, as a spiritual practice, and as a pathway to healing intergenerational trauma. “This is a series that has been a lifetime in the making.”

The Audacity to be Asian in Rural America is currently on tour in rural Minnesota through the end of 2023. 

"The Audacity To Be Asian In Rural America" on view at MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, 2023
“The Audacity To Be Asian In Rural America” on view at MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, 2023. Credit: Nancy X. Valentine.

Legacy Amendment

Her latest series of 2022 paintings is called Legacy Amendment, exhibited at the Kaddatz Galleries in May/June of 2023. It is an exploration of the legacy she is leaving for future generations. The title of the series is based on the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution, which protects wetlands, prairies, forests, wildlife habitat, lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater, as well as preserving arts and cultural heritage. 

A photo of Nancy X. Valentine’s painting “Everything Everywhere” from her exhibition “Legacy Amendment” at the Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Credit: Nancy X. Valentine.

This new series was created using watercolor and Chinese ink, “activated by snow gathered during one of our late spring storms”.  In comparison to her earlier work, it’s more energetic and abstract in composition, the lines and colors exploding onto the page. 

An inspiration for this new work is the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once. “Watching that movie was the first time that someone depicted the experience that I have when I am painting…there are moments when I hold a certain posture or I am creating a certain brushstroke and it almost feels like whatever ancestor it was who held that in a different time and space…”

Moving Forward

“So when I talk about beyond pretty, I am really talking about the model minority myth here in my community. People have their ideas of what a good little Chinese girl should be and the kind of art I should be making and (Legacy Amendment) is not that. I think by making this work, it’s showing an example of something else and also giving people permission to put stuff out that is also not pretty. Because I was really angry for a really long time at my community. Not just for not understanding me but not even giving a damn enough to try. And I think that shows itself in some of the work that I’ve created now too.” 

To grow up Asian in rural America, in a racially and culturally homogenous space, in which one is constantly seen as ‘the other’ is deeply traumatic. Human beings are communal animals and there are psychological wounds created when we belong to a community that cannot understand or empathize with our own personal lives and experiences. Part of what Nancy’s work explores is the chaos-making in the psyche that comes from being unique, psychologically isolated and lonely. Her work is a revelation of how art makes beauty out of chaos, out of the disjointedness of our different social identities, out of the different stories that others tell us about who we are and the stories that we tell ourselves about our communities and our worlds. 

A photo from Nancy X. Valentine's Opening Reception of “Legacy Amendment” on May 11, 2023 at the Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Credit: Britanni Smith.
A photo from Nancy X. Valentine’s Opening Reception of “Legacy Amendment” on May 11, 2023 at the Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Credit: Britanni Smith.

About the Author

A black and white photo of Rural Regenerator Fellow Mai'a Williams
Credit: Jon Swanson.

Mai’a Williams (she/herthey/them) is an interdisciplinary artist who primarily works in sculpture, performance, installation, poetry and prose. Their studio, curatorial and research-based practice weaves together their identity as a queer Muslim and a daughter of First Nations and Black American lineages, as well as their experience as a midwife and a mother. Their work is a response to revolutionary mothering, global Black death, their African and First Nations ancestry and joy. It is a reflection of living and working with Egyptian, Palestinian, Congolese, and Central American Indigenous mothers in resistance communities for more than 15 years. Learn more about Mai’a’s work at

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