Still Walk­ing

A Chat with Ding­hai-based Lac­quer Paint­ing Mas­ter Zhang Gao­jun

That's China - - The Innovators - Text by / Serene Li

“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.

Lac­quer paint­ing

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.

[1] **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.

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