A Chat with Dinghai-based Lacquer Painting Master Zhang Gaojun
“I’ve been learning diligently and always will be,” Zhang Gaojun announced his tagline nearing the end of the chat, with steam curling upwards from the electric kettle to fill the air with the refreshing fragrance of freshly brewed Pu’er tea. Encapsulated in such a brief summary of his stormy life experiences of ups and downs, gains and losses, hope against hope, and survival from the jaws of death, is the man’s great ease of taking the rough with the smooth.
The man did virtually a little bit of everything in his dazed younger years, from running a coffee shop to a printing business. In those walk-onair years when he seemed to have nothing to lose, Zhang Gaojun was a successful businessman, with even his eyebrows dancing with confidence and pleasure. In his mid-thirties, he hit the rock bottom of his life. Heavily in debt, he thought he was done and close to the finish line. He emerged from the darkest days of his life not only alive – but having paid off all the 1.8 million yuan debt that sounded like an astronomic figure in the 1990s, and opened up a new life chapter to resume his dream as an artist.
Today, the 53-year-old has returned to his original nature, embracing what he calls the “basics and essentials” with an unperturbed mind baptized by his roller-coaster years. Making tea across the table, he talked non-stop for two hours with the aplomb that one would be forgiven to think he was telling us the life story of someone he happens to know.
Tall and handsome as his name ‘gaojun’ suggests, Zhang Gaojun looks like a suntanned fisherman who has just returned from the high seas. Only his penetrating eyes betray the strong currents surging underneath his calm, unsophisticated exterior.
A chat with the man takes a lot of energy, wisdom and most importantly, sincerity. Failing to show sincerity could result in a smattering from him, but in the opposite case, he is ready to reward with two-fold sincerity and surprises.
At 44 – an age when most of us would be scarred by the battles of life, Zhang Gaojun was still fresh, enthusiastic and open to ideas, fighting with a rope around his neck. He left all the comfort of his hometown and the flashy business world to travel to Fuzhou – the cradle of Chinese lacquer art 1 to resume his art dream.
Making a lacquer painting may take several months depending on the technique used and the number of layers of lacquer. The elaborate process includes the use of eggshells, sandpaper, a mix of charcoal powder and even human hair. The artist may apply up to ten layers or more of coloured and clear lacquer. In Ming China, processes included up to a whopping hundred layers. Consequently, "lacquer painting" is in part a misnomer, since the bringing out of the colours is not done in the preparatory painting but in the burnishing of the lacquer layers to reveal the desired image beneath.
Zhang Gaojun fell in love with the mysterious beauty of the art at first sight, and his single-minded love never waned over the years, as clearly proven by the lead-colored marks in the center of his palms. In his eye, it is a perfect fit between the unique texture and lust of lacquer layers going through multiple burnishing and all the maritime elements that form his favourite artistic theme. He feels perfectly in his element in this time-
In his eye, it is a perfect fit between the unique texture and lust of lacquer layers going through multiple burnishing and all the maritime elements that form his favourite artistic theme.
consuming art form practiced by very few in today’s artistic circle, and his unusual passion continues to inspire new creations, breathing exuberant, refreshing vitality into this poker-faced art genre.
In his lacquer paintings, everything from the waves swashing against the withered rocks, the sun-burnt faces of travel-worn sailors, the glistening scales of a nameless fish, the rusted shell of fishing boats, to the phantasmagoric sea colours changing hues every moment and the turning wheel of seasons, is presented with a stunningly high artistic expressive force.
Over the years, Zhang Gaojun has been racking his brain in his studio based in Nandong Art Valley in Dinghai to play the role of a trailblazer in the city’s rural cultural construction. “It is a road bristled with thorns, but I am not a quitter. At least I can take an enlightening role for others to draw inspiration and lessons from.”
Occasionally, he’d be down with frustration in today’s pragmatic world, but his ‘crab friends’ are always ready to cheer him up. The man loves the red-pincer creatures so much that he gave himself the nickname ‘crab brother’ and built a crab zoo in a corner of his sprawling studio. Watching and photographing the crabs frolicking around and brandishing their huge claws is the man’s favourite pastime and his antidote to depression.
“It should work even harder to become a better place,” Zhang Gaojun said when asked to comment on the city’s cultural future. For him, perhaps the best way to show his deep love for the city is not to speak words of flattery, but to hold on to his faith and work hard to deliver the promises he’s made with the city.
 **Lacquer painting is a form of painting with lacquer which was practised in China and Japan for decoration on lacquerware. The genre was revived and developed as a distinct genre of fine art painting by Vietnamese artists in the 1930s. First outlines in chalk on a black board are picked out in white with eggshell and clear varnish, then polished. Then the first layer of coloured lacquer is applied, usually followed by silver leaf and another layer of clear lacquer. Then several more layers of different coloured lacquers are painted by brush, with clear lacquer layers between them. When all layers, each requiring drying and polishing, are applied the artist polishes different parts of the painting until the preferred colours show. Fine sandpaper and a mix of charcoal powder and human hair are used to carefully reach the correct layer of each specific colour.