Craftsman turns reeds into creative, valuable artworks
HARBIN — For many, reeds are nothing but grass, but in Wei Lichun’s hands, they are turned into art.
Wei, 55, is a fine arts teacher at a vocational school in Lindian county, Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province. Using an electric soldering iron and dye, he creates images on various kinds of reeds.
Ahead of the Year of the Ox, that started on Feb 12, he completed a 1.66-meter-long piece based on the traditional Chinese painting, Five Oxen. “It took me over 20 days using various kinds of reeds and techniques,” says Wei.
In Wei’s hometown, reeds grow everywhere in wetlands and the wilderness. When he was young, his family often used reeds, measuring more than two meters, to make mats.
In 1992, Wei started focusing on reed handicrafts and established a studio the following year.
China has a reed-handicraft history stretching back hundreds of years. In 2013, the craft was listed into the provincial-level intangible cultural heritage.
Each reed harvest season, Wei buys a whole truck of reeds.
“We can only use 250 kilograms out of a load weighing a metric ton, and all must be selected manually,” says Wei.
Stiff reeds are difficult to iron and paint, he says, while those that are too soft will break easily. Reed handicraft involves multiple steps. First, one side of a reed needs to be cut with a knife. It is then flattened, soaked in warm water, and ironed. The ironing time determines the color of the raw materials.
Dyeing the reeds requires special weak alkaline pigments, which need to be accurately boiled.
“Even a minute’s difference in boiling time will lead to the wrong color,” Wei says.
Some 300 of his works, including animals, flowers and figures, have been sold to more than 10 countries including Russia, Japan and Sweden. The most expensive work, which is decorated with cranes and measures 24 meters in length, was sold at a price of 400,000 yuan ($62,000).
“Art is interlinked and can become a bridge of friendship. Although cultural backgrounds are different, many foreigners can understand the content expressed in the artworks,” Wei says.
Recently, Wei has been producing reed artworks themed on Water Margin, one of the four classical novels in Chinese literature.
“I hope to spread more traditional Chinese culture through reed crafts so that more people can feel the beauty in it,” he says.