本文刊载于Raw Vision第99期。Raw Vision是全球影响力最大的专注素人艺术的专业媒体，于1989年英国创刊至今一直致力推进素人艺术的发展，发现并介绍了数百名世界各地的杰出素人艺术家。官方网站：rawvision.com 。
China has the largest elderly population inthe world. By 2017, the number of people aged 65 and over had exceeded 150million. When you look closely at the everyday life of this enormous but largelysilent community, you’ll find it shockingly homogeneous. The majority of seniorcitizens in China have chosen to continue their roles as family caregivers,helping their children with house chores and looking after grandchildren. Theirfree time is usually spent on fitness-related activities; they try to battleold age, ailments and feelings of emptiness by sticking to a healthyroutine/diet, traveling, being physically active and developing some kind of hobby.For 71-year-old Shao Bingfeng, however, life after retirement means much more.She became an artist ten years ago. As we speak, her work is on show simultaneouslyat galleries in Paris and Beijing.
A petite woman with grizzled hair, Shao isfull of energy and looks younger than her age. She currently lives with herdaughter’s family in Yanjiao. Due to a minor surgery last year—a close call butthankfully nothing worse—she decided to settle in the area for easy access tothe hospital. Although the town is miles away from Beijing and technicallybelongs to Hebei, the low house prices have turned it into a satellite city andattracted a lot of artists working in Beijing. During the day, when most peoplehave gone into the city, the residential area is very quiet. Shao’s daughter’sapartment is on the ground floor and has a small backyard filled with plants.Shao’s room faces the yard, and her sizable bedside work table is covered withpalettes and art supplies—a convenient setup for the artist to continuepainting after her siesta. Once the work has begun, Shao would remain standing withunwavering concentration, sometimes for an entire afternoon. Her daughterwishes she would not work so hard, but Shao thinks there’s no better way torelax than painting.
There’s an iPad on Shao’s work table thatstands out among the palettes and brushes, and an intriguing image appears onits screen: a girl in black (who appears to be Eastern European) is lying onher side on top of a low cabinet; there’s a leopard inside the open cabinetthat seems to be fascinated by the girl’s hanging braid. This is the image Shaois currently trying to reproduce on a giant piece of soft rice paper. Shao’spainting retains the same basic composition, but the Eastern European girl has beenreplaced by a Chinese country lass dressed in a floral print dudou (traditional Chinese bodice), thepillow and the cabinet are now decorated with finely-crafted traditionalpatterns, and a few more leopards with surprised expressions have joined thelone one in the original picture. Shao uses traditional Chinese pigments and thinink brushes for coloring, which produces an unassuming tone that nonetheless servesto create tension and depict all kinds of eerie scenes. Those who see Shao atwork for the first time would probably be intrigued by her method, but she hasbeen working this way for more than a decade: she is not really duplicating,because her creations are completely different from the references she uses. Apainting typically takes Shao from a week to a month to finish, and sometimesshe would recolor old works long after they are completed if she spotssomething unsatisfying. Over 500 completed rice-paper works have already comeout of Shao’s daily exercise, all with a distinct, unified style that belongsto her and her alone.
The reference pictures Shao has been usingfor the past few years are all fetched from the internet by her daughter. Shao wouldpick what she finds “interesting” to paint. Judging by her recent series (suchas the Circus series, the Dalí series and Hairdressers from the IndustrialPeriod), the artist’s definition of “interesting” must contain elements such asexaggerated dramatic intensity, rich content and novelty scenarios. She has eventried her hand at medieval altarpieces. The color (or lack of) and resolutionof the original image is irrelevant to Shao. Her creative process coverseverything from the first draft to the finishing touch.
Creating lifelike images is never Shao’sgoal; her brushstrokes are characterized by their unconstrained intuition and heartfeltsincerity. The Western figures in her early paintings all have oriental faces,and she finds painting children especially challenging. She admits that it’s apity she can’t paint them better than “dwarves with adult heads”. From clothingto furniture, wherever decoration is concerned, Shao is always drawn towardtraditional Chinese patterns. Winding curves, floral patterns, auspiciouscharacters—these images are normally used to represent good fortune andhappiness in Chinese folk art, but they are found on the bikinis and surfingboards of modish girls in Shao’s work. Even the clown who plays Rigoletto inthe circus looks like a Peking Opera performer with a pair of embroideredshoes. Shao likes to fill the background of her paintings with everydayobjects: the wall behind Dalí is decorated with a wall-mounted air conditionerwith exposed ducts (complete with the label) and a column heater, both commonlyseen in Chinese households; a traditional porcelain flower vase sits at thefeet of Madonna, and the potted plants from Shao’s own backyard can be found inmost of her paintings.
Shao’s eccentric and na?ve visual style is supportedby her self-taught painting skills. She seems to have mastered shading and thehandling of complex folds automatically; recently she is even able to take onthe texture of silk dresses and the skin of elephants. Shao is especially goodat filling blank spaces with micro-patterns; the snowflakes she draws are sorefined that many mistake it for the texture of the paper itself. Thistechnique can almost be seen as a kind of embroidery, or a version of folkGongbi (a type of Chinese painting) of Shao’s own creation. Her finished workis exquisite, neat and shows a high degree of completion.
Shao’s first painting was done on a pieceof cardboard paper that came with a newly bought shirt. It was 2006, and shehad spent nearly a decade in retirement. The grandson she had been taking careof had already turned 4. She had been content drawing cats and dogs with hergrandson before one day,onthe spur of the moment, she painted an old photograph. Her daughter andson-in-law were both studying at the art academy at the time, and they weregenuinely surprised when they saw Shao’s painting. We can now understand theirwonder completely—Shao is an artist who was born with her own style. Encouragedby her daughter and son-in-law, Shao went on to repaint almost all the oldfamily photos, from black-and-white studio portraits of her younger self tophotos of family gatherings and weddings from the 80s when color films werejust starting to become popular, and to portraits of friends in the art circleshe became acquainted with after she had made a name for herself in theindustry. Comparing to her later works, Shao’s early paintings are morestraightforward, and the colors are relatively opaque. But the magic is that nomatter what period the reference photo comes from, Shao’s work always seems tocarry something of times gone by. Even her reproductions of contemporaryWestern photography bear this trait. Her work has the power to awaken thememories of a nation even in those who have not experienced the turmoil of a particularperiod.
Shao belongs to the generation that grew upwith the new republic. Born to a time of great social and cultural upheavals, fewpeople in her generation had the luxury to choose the life they wanted. Shaowas born to a peasant family in Shangdong in 1947 and had seven siblings. Shewas in 3rd grade when the Great Leap Forward started in 1958, andthe Great Famine came when she was in middle school. Shao managed to survive onwild plants and tree leaves, but hunger and poverty were deeply ingrained inher memory of this time. After graduating from middle school, she returned hometo work on the farm. She also did various odd jobs, including two years as anembroiderer, which explains her familiarity with traditional folk art patterns.In 1967 Shao was selected to go to college. She waited excitedly for theadmission letter after she had passed the physical exam, but what cameeventually was not the long-awaited letter but the decade-long CulturalRevolution—a misfortune Shao keeps lamenting over even today. The CulturalRevolution put everyone’s life and work on hold. Shao remembers running aroundwith the crowd, putting up posters and propaganda material. She didn’t learnanything, but her exposure to propaganda became an unexpected source ofaesthetic awakening, and the fashion and faces of people from this periodgreatly influenced her taste: the visual style of her work is clearly groundedin the time of her youth. Whenever she paints a scene with multiple people, shewould always dress some of them in green uniforms and hats with the symbolicred star; it reminds the viewer that Mao’s era is not buried history, but thecollective memory of an entire generation of Chinese people who can never detachthemselves from the past completely.
In 1971, 24-year-old Shao married an oilfieldworker from Hubei. She and her husband had to spend the first six years oftheir marriage apart. Shao went to live with her in-laws and her two daughters,and had to toil all day on the farm in order to make a living. In 1978 shefinally moved to the oilfield with the kids; the family was reunited, but lifedidn’t get any easier. They lived in a straw house and then a tent, and hadvarious jobs assigned to them that include road construction, house-buildingand pharmaceutical work. Shao ended up working as an accountant at the familyservice center and even served as the head of the center for two years,managing the affairs of all families associated with the oilfield. In 1989 shebecame an accountant at the finance office of Zhongyuan Oilfield News, where she stayed until her retirement in1997.
Like many senior citizens of China, Shao isa lay Buddhist. She decorated her work table with the Buddhist chant “Namo Amitābha”and says she must thank Buddha for her good fortune and the wonderful life sheenjoys these days. Perhaps her artistic style is also shaped by this feeling ofcontentment and her easygoing, down-to-earth personality. What really moves usis the candor in her paintings—the pure love for life in each brushstroke.