Tapping the Mind of a Creator

Delicately as a falling flower petal, Professor Jiemin Wu of Beijing Normal University applies soft colors and designs to paper. A modern master following the northern branch of the Lingnan school of painting, Mr. Wu recently traveled from his home in Beijing to present his body of work at the Lingnan Art Gallery, among other places in Guangdong.

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In our own backyard, slighty more than 100 years ago, the definitive Lingnan art style was being conceived and propogated at Keyuan Garden by Ju Lian (居廉) and Ju Chao (居巢). Technically, anything “Lingnan” applies to culture from Guangdong, but these days, the culture has spread across China. Furthering this point, Professor Jiemin Wu now focuses on a northern approach in Beijing.

“One of my projects is studying Coastal Folklore Culture, which includes Lingnan style. I have come down to Guangdong to discover the roots and traces. Long ago, I did an investigation into this culture before I merged my life into it. I did sketches like Western artists and melded it with the local style. Together, we can make a new traditional creation,” Mr. Wu said.

Coming from a well-to-do family whose linage stretches into history, Mr. Wu was fortunate to have been educated in the classical Chinese arts (guoxue, calligraphy, poetry and painting) from an early age.

“I am a traditional artist, but I used to do oil painting. I like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. However, we descendants of the Qing Dynasty might have a stronger passion for traditional culture. My grandpa was a literati; he practiced calligraphy and painting. When I was young, he hired someone to teach me these things, as well. I once felt like this kind of inheritance was the only difference between those with aristocratic descendency and others,” he explained.

Tradition has held strongly for people in Mr. Wu’s family; evidenced in part by the wearing of his family’s decorative thumb ring—an ancient tool used to protect the thumb when pulling back the bow string before firing an arrow—which previously marked social status in older times. It was partly for this that I was surprised when he told me that he hadn’t pressed the same education on his own son.

A person’s morals and skills they learn from school and life all come together to create an understanding. Once you mix all these understandings together, they become your own life. A truly successful artist must have his own unique thoughts and eclectic experience,” he clarified.

“I have a more open spirit concerning painting. I think a person’s life belongs to himself and that people should choose their own way. My child, for example, went to Korea to study finance and trade. His mother studied science. I never wanted to push him to specifically learn anything,” he reasoned.

I questioned him whether everyone is fit to be an artist if they’d be given a similar amount of support that he received.

“I think any artist must have his free space, but he must also have a comprehensive understanding of culture. As far as I am concerned, that’s how a good artist is born. A person’s morals and skills they learn from school and life all come together to create an understanding. Once you mix all these understandings together, they become your own life. A truly successful artist must have his own unique thoughts and eclectic experience,” he clarified.

For an extrodinarily long time, painting has been the identity of Mr. Wu. Even now—in the twilight of his life—he still creates between 10 to 20 pieces per year. Though he also teaches, his artwork must have also generated income for his family. I wondered if it was difficult to separate the study of his craft from its financial benefit.

“As for myself—a teacher—art is a study. An artist is an artist. What we should do is to combine our own understanding of life with art. That’s how true art comes. Drawing is a feeling, we focus the feeling and turn it into something visual,” he commented, face flush with pride.

As a testament to his work, the government commissioned him to create a special piece that would join a group of other artworks to be flown into space by Shenzhou 11. Think of it like the modern golden record fired out into the unknown back in the 1970s. Only recently, those records—safe within the grasp of their steely protectors—finally exited our solar system. Imagine what’s possible today. He explained this piece for us.

“The painting has a rooster on it for this year, but it also means good luck and fortune. I used pink, which is very rare in Chinese painting. Here, you can see contrasting yellows and reds, which were influenced by Western styles,” pointing as he detailed.

It’s certainly mesmerizing to watch a person so immersed in his craft go detail by detail, explaining each included element and the highly specific reasons why they exist. Watching him, I couldn’t refrain to ask: Can you image a life without painting?

“As an artist, I don’t have any life without art. We all need the spirit of art to create a better life and it would be better to use “art” as a common language to let Chinese and others understanding the voices of eachother.”

Category Who Would Know