When Kong Ning left her studio on Jan. 16, 2014, she was fed up. Pollution levels in Beijing had shot up to more than 18 times what the World Health Organization deems healthy. Outside, every other person wore a face mask to protect against the haze clinging to the city.

Before leaving, Kong Ning impulsively snatched one of her canvases and brought it with her. “The smog is really bad -- I want people to see my painting,” she remembers thinking. The piece she'd grabbed, one of a series of 11 works in oil called “Smog Baby,” depicted a girl with different-colored eyes wearing a face mask.

In the nearly 14 years since she left her career as a lawyer, Kong Ning has devoted her life to creating art that expresses her feelings toward the environment she has watched deteriorate around her. That day, she wanted to make a statement.

“I thought that Tiananmen [Square] is the place all Chinese people feel the most strongly about [as a symbol],” she said of Beijing’s heavily policed central square, built by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1958 and known for the protests that took place there in June 1989. “The pollution was bad so I just went there to document it.”

With the help of a tourist she encountered when she arrived there, she managed to take several photos of herself holding the painting in front of the iconic Chairman Mao picture that hangs on the Forbidden City. Then she was kicked out by armed guards. She immediately posted her photos on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media site, where they spread quickly. They plainly hit a nerve among frustrated Chinese netizens.