Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist


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A laid-back town – of 10 Million people

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Only in Western China is it possible to find a gigantic, yet laid-back city like Chengdu. A major city in the spicy province of Sichuan, Chengdu regularly ranks towards the top in the “Livable City” category for China. Teahouses and midnight street-side barbeques are a staple of life in the slow lane, and I got a taste of both during a few short days in town.

But the real reason I was there was to see what local artists were up to. And while the Chengdu Biennale had some impressive paintings and sculptures on offer, I wanted to go straight to the source: to look at the artists at work in their studios.

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At the NongYuan Art Village a half-hour outside Chengdu, I was greeted by an example of attractive design combined with…awkward English.

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The most expensive-looking studios were, naturally, nearest the main concrete path. They had been individually custom-built by artists as live-work spaces. Here they’re extending the path towards another artist’s home.

Most of the  studios were locked, and the first painter I ran into was too busy (yelling at his assistants to speak English with me) to talk about his work. Also, he was in marketing mode that day: he looked ready to head to the golf course in spotless clothes.

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Wei Bin (no website) was the first painter I met who was actually working.  As I walked up to his door, I saw him glazing a canvas with burnt umber, cigarette in one hand, five-inch brush in the other. The room reeked of turpentine and was filled with huge faces that stared down from concrete walls. All of them were meticulously copied from laser print-outs like those that lay next to his palette.

I didn’t take any photos on this first meeting, and wanted to assess the art culture norms in China first; in Vietnam last year, artists were occasionally suspicious of my motives until we got to know one another.

His prices ranged from a very reasonable 600 Yuan for a small painting (around US$90), to thousands for his big canvases. All of them were of top-quality artist materials, better than what you see used by many American artists: oil on 100% linen, gallery-wrapped around thick, solid stretcher bars.

“It’s not simply cultural chauvanism that keeps Chinese investors from looking outside their borders when they buy art,” I thought as I looked at his huge glistening paintings. “There’s just so much talent here in China.” Like many of my compatriots who’ve never gotten a passport until recent laws mandated we needed one to enter Mexico & Canada:  no need to fly to the other side of the world for a holiday – we have great climates close to home, all year round.

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Sketches?  notes? calligraphy practice? Next to the dumpster

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When local designers stick to the visual rather than getting ambitious with English, they produce great results.

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Here’s HuYang, a younger artist. She and her boyfriend share a basic but reasonable-sized studio towards  the back of the arts village. Her paintings are of  luscious cakes and sweets. They drip with sugar and ooze frosting and candy-colors. She prices her canvases confidently between 2000-5000 Yuan each.

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The studio across from HuYang and her boyfriend. “Only 1000 Yuan a month!” (~US$175) I thought.   Maybe someday.

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An ad hoc framing shop in the same building, with dozens of customers down the lane.

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“Aha,” I thought. “Someone who has an ‘art studio’ not an ‘oil painting studio’!” Oil painting is by far the most lucrative painting medium, so is naturally preferred by entrepreneurial Chinese artists.

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But apparently Zhou Tian Lai, whomever s/he may be, has moved on, hopefully to bigger & better things. All that’s left are corncobs spilling from a basket, doubtless from some conceptual piece with an agrarian theme.

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My last studio visit was to a “Chinese Painter”, Mr. Liu from Beijing.

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He was bent over his work; somehow, painting with ink on a horizontal surface is more introverted than oils/acrylics on an easel.  I didn’t want to interrupt him.

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But I wanted a closer look at his paintings with their vibrant red flowers.

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So we exchanged cards, and he offered me a can of tea, chatting to me all the while in clear Beijing Mandarin. He looked at my card, and saw “Artist” in Chinese. So he brought out all his colors and showed me how he mixed & ground each of them.

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Then he painted my Chinese name on a fan. And painted a small version of a watercolor that I liked, with a poem calligraphed onto the side. “Uh oh,” I thought. “This is going to get expensive.” He’s an older guy, and prices of artists over 40 tend to be in the high range.

But he wouldn’t accept a single Yuan from me.  Instead, he persuaded me to join QQ, China’s biggest Instant Messaging service.

Guess what? Web 2.0 isn’t just in English anymore….

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