DOWNTOWN — With the release of his first book, artist Rich Lo leaps one step closer to financial and creative freedom, something the Chinese immigrant thought was impossible.
"It's a little late in life, but better late than never," Lo, 57, said from his colorful studio on the top floor of The Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave.
The new book, "Father's Chinese Opera," is a 40-page story fictional tale written and illustrated by Lo in vivid watercolor sketches.
Told with just a handful of words and Lo's detailed art work, it's a story about a boy who observes, then aims to become, an acrobat in a fanciful Chinese opera.
Lo said the lessons in the book — hard work, perseverance and humility — should resonate with a wide audience, but he's hoping the book gets picked up by Chinese-American kids across the nation.
"I want it to be a tool, a guide to teach Chinese-Americans to always follow their dreams. Chinese-Americans are pragmatic. We're taught to push aside the American Dream," he said.
Lo has hustled throughout his unlikely career to get his own slice of "the dream."
Born in Canton Province in China, Lo's family immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, eventually settling in Chicago's Chinatown.
But uprooting meant major changes for Lo's family.
His father Lo Tok, a well-known and revered composer in Hong Kong, resorted to "flipping egg rolls and being yelled at by extraordinarily unreasonable restaurant owners who had no knowledge of human rights," Lo said.
His mother had to find work as a seamstress.
Rich, meanwhile, goofed around at Lane Tech High School and eventually shipped off to Eastern Illinois University, "the only place I got accepted," he said.
After a short stint in Los Angeles illustrating ads in phone books for $4 an hour, Lo returned to Chicago to pick up reliable freelance work, which he parlayed into three decades as an illustrator for various agencies.
More recently, he was commissioned by the Great Books Foundation to illustrate stories written by heavyweight authors like Ray Bradbury and Langston Hughes. In many of instances, his illustrations for the books are the first time someone has tried to add visuals to the famed authors' words.
"It's a heavy responsibility," he said.
Lo has large oil paintings hanging in the Borg-Warner building at 200 S. Michigan Ave. and a robust portfolio that includes water colors, graphic design, pencil sketches, caricatures, animations, still lifes of produce and hundreds of other types of work.
And therein lies the lesson, that hard work can put the impossible within reach.
Lo said he's rarely turned down a job in the past 30 years. It's all been a way to scramble to make a living and provide for his family.
It wasn't until a few weeks ago that he quit one steady freelance gig to focus on selling and licensing his artwork on his Artclicker website, and to begin promoting his book.
If the website pans out and the book's a success — it's already getting favorable reviews on the kids lit circuit — Lo said he may finally find some stability as a working artist.
Not bad for a self-described punk kid from Chinatown.
"You don't have to be rich and famous in life. The goal is to be productive and do something you love ... I'm not the kind of guy that can walk in a room and demand attention, but my work does," he said.
Rich Lo's work can be found at his websites Studio 1022, Rich Lo Speaks and Great Sketch. The book is available on Amazon.com, in select Barnes and Noble stores and is expected to be available at local bookstores soon.
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