When Huan Lei was in elementary school in China, he loved to paint. However, as he grew older, his mother discouraged him from being a full-time artist, arguing that he'd be poor. So instead of art school, Huan Lei went to law school and eventually became a law professor in Shanghai.
But painting remained a lifelong hobby for Huan Lei, who is now 77 and living in Tysons Towers in Tysons Corner.
"Even now, he keeps painting constantly," said art student Tung Wang, who also lives at Tysons Towers, a subsidized housing complex.
Huan Lei, like Tung Wang, started taking an art class for residents of Tysons Towers. But the class soon discovered his artistic skill, and he started to help teach the class where he had been previously a student.
"We think his work's incredible. He has a wonderful spirit," said Liz Mirc, activities director at Tysons Towers. "We love his spirit. We'd love to exhibit his work."
Whether living in China or in Virginia, where he has resided since 1997, Huan Lei paints for the joy of it. He makes the sketch of a painting in his mind and then uses a one-stroke technique to create the painting.
His favorite subject to draw is the tiger, both because of the strength it represents and because Huan Lei was born in the Year of the Tiger.
"They are very brave, and they're full of energy," said Huan Lei, speaking through Tung Wang.
Yet painting has served not just as a hobby for Huan Lei but as a way for him to connect with others. When he was a law professor, his former students, who had graduated years before, would come back and ask him to create paintings to give as gifts. He would also paint the animals of the Chinese zodiac, giving those paintings away.
He gave Virginia governor Mark Warner a painting of a horse, which symbolizes strength. Warner thanked Huan Lei with a handwritten note.
"He made many friends," Tung Wang said.
With the exception of this year, Huan Lei has been involved in the International Student Festival at George Mason University since 1998. His son's neighbor, who was a student and student president, asked Huan Lei to draw pictures at the festival.
"This is a very happy thing for him to know many people are there," said Tung Wang.
He didn't make it to the festival this year because his wife had been seriously ill. She died several weeks ago. Yet as he took care of her, he continued to paint. He dedicated to her the painting he was working on, which was of a toddler painted in Western-style techniques. The toddler represents rebirth. When Huan Lei finished the painting, he was grieving, so he put the wrong date on the painting. He decided to keep the date there as a reminder.
"Even in this difficult situation, he still kept painting. I think this can relax [him]," Tung Wang said.
Huan Lei continues to paint once or twice a week. He signs each painting with a block print.
The print "means insane," he joked.