There are art shows, and, mamma mia, then there are “art shows.”

At the Seattle Asian Art Museum, there is a show that I could not for a moment pretend wasn’t the one that will make me sure of what I want from a show forever more. It’s called, “Hometown Boy: Liu Xiaodong.”

To briefly paraphrase the write-up: Liu Xiadong, one of China’s most celebrated artists, grew up in a small town before moving to Beijing. After three decades of experiencing unbridled growth, he returned home. Feeling like an outsider, he masterfully captured the details of daily life in a typical Chinese town.

I think that’s what got me the most: that write-up — that feeling of wanting to return to the town of your youth, especially when the city around you is a construction zone. If I try to describe how Downtown Seattle used to feel, pre-Amazon, instead of how it feels now....

I like to say it feels like a woman I know in Marin County, Calif.: wealthy but insecure — so much of her face has been lasered or chemically peeled that it makes her entire makeover feel forced. Nothing about her face seems grounded to the rest of her. It’s as if she has lost all perspective. She can no longer recognize the difference between what she perceives as youthful and what is just plain, old keeping up with what is possible because she is filthy-rich.

Indeed, the cranes rise over our city in a steely vision. And there is no arguing with a machine that rises hundreds of feet into the air. “Sure, you may not like me,” the closest crane seems to say, as if it might swing through my bedroom window in a wind, “but we are the boss of you now.”

A resident observer

Anyway, I was so inspired by Liu’s paintings, I decided to spend the weekend in “my” old small town of Port Townsend, where, in the first years after moving to the city, I couldn’t visit without my past crashing into my future and my present getting mashed in between. But now, I like returning.

In the city, my days are full of work (mostly work), friends, current deadlines, etc. To counter the fullness, I enjoy returning — it’s as if I’m tending to my history.

But, like Liu, I feel like an outsider now, an observer. Still, I like the way my old neighborhood keeps me in touch with how everything in nature is shifting, quite visibly, all the time. Entirely different from the acceleration I see from my Belltown balcony: man’s need to build higher and grander, the skyline shifting almost daily. Yet, in much the same way, both worlds remind me how fluid life is.

Going back, I also feel how unstable I felt as a younger woman. And when I’m on the ferry crossing Elliott Bay and see my current neighborhood, I see how I learned to support myself.

I wonder if this is the same experience Liu had. Could he see all the connections between the younger man he was and his current strengths? Many, many artists address this same transition, stressing how becoming the artist we want to be demands we continue to dare, hone in and simplify. In Liu’s paintings, I see just that: daring, honed work that captured my imagination so simply that I ran down the steps of the museum feeling as if I had just relived my own transition.

I guess it might be overkill to say everyone should see this show. But yes, yes, I will say this: Everyone should see this show.

MARY LOU SANELLI’s latest book is “Among Friends.” Visit her website: To comment on this column, write to