Artistry and Integrity

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An oil-on-canvas painting of a pair of macaws leans against the wall of a dim classroom in Chengdu province’s Hua Xin Vocational College. The student artist who painted them is Jing Chao, a young man in his early twenties, who is warm and animated as we speak about his future plans. This summer he will start a job as a graphic designer for an e-commerce company in Shenzhen, an industrial city in Guangdong province on the border with Hong Kong. It is clear that Jing has an entrepreneurial as well as an artistic streak. He talks excitedly about a project he and a few classmates plan to launch after they graduate from Hua Xin, using China’s eBay equivalent Taobao to sell clothes from a wholesale company in Guangzhou.
Like many young people approaching graduation, Jing is apprehensive too. Unlike them, however, his greatest challenges will be things that most of us take for granted. Jing, and the eight other students who have used their lunchtime to gather in the studio, all survived the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Wenchuan county in Sichuan province on May 12, 2008. Each of them has lost at least one limb, while some have suffered psychological trauma. Tang Yijun and Yang Liu are paraplegic.
“I think now in Chengdu (and in mainland China generally), facilities for disabled people are not well established,” Jing says without bitterness. “My classmates and I may have many difficulties in our future life and work.”
Nonetheless, after enduring a natural disaster that killed 70,000 people and left over 18,000 missing, they are here, happy and focused in large part because of the Five Colours Foundation.
The foundation was started in March 2009 by the highly respected artist Zhou Chunya, a Chongqing, Sichuan native who is best known for his Blossom and Green Dog series of paintings and whose large-scale work normally fetches around RMB5 million at auction. After the earthquake struck, he and fellow artists Zhao Huan, Su Yang, Zhang Jun, Tu Hongtao and Ji Lei went to the intensive care ward of Sichuan University Hospital to visit children who had survived. “It is difficult for people who did not go through the earthquake to imagine what it was like … It was shocking for us to see so many children disabled by the disaster, sitting in their wheelchairs, jamming up whole corridors,” he recalls. “We brought them food and clothes, but quickly realised this was not a sustainable way to help them solve the problem of living.”
Zhou leans forward in an armchair in one corner of his vast, sunlit studio, a working and living space which forms part of the Blue Roof artists’ community, some way out of Chengdu’s city centre. (In spring, when the peach blossoms start to flower, the landscape is a jubilee of pink.)
He explains that although most of the children were injured below the waist, many of them could still use their hands. Zhou decided that as artists they could help the children in the long run by teaching them a craft with which they could make a living, despite their disabilities.
“That’s when we had a discussion and decided to build a school,” he says. “We know so many talented artists who were willing to teach these kids to paint. We hoped that art could bring them two main benefits. The first was to help them forget their physical pain in the process of learning. That was the most important; they needed to regain their confidence and heal psychologically.
Secondly, knowing it would be difficult for them to develop careers in the future, we wished for them to learn a skill with which they could become productive members of society. As the saying goes, ‘Give a man a fish and you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime.’”
The vision for Five Colours was a mobile school, which would travel with art supplies to teach disabled children in different parts of Sichuan. Today, five teachers volunteer regularly with the foundation, all of whom are working artists.
When another earthquake struck Yushu county in Qinghai province in April 2010, the foundation redoubled its efforts to help survivors in the Tibetan area. The organisation has provided aid to some 140 children and continues to support 14 students in higher education, most of whom attend Hua Xin.
Teacher Geng Bo has been with this group of students since the foundation’s beginning. More than anyone, he knows how hard they have all worked to be here, and how difficult their future is likely to be – especially in a country where respect for the disabled is sadly lacking. Geng will not say he is proud of them. Rather, he is happy they are learning how to live independently.
“It was March 2009 when I first met these children. They didn’t know anything about painting, but they were passionate,” he recalls. “The conditions were bad for them. It was a very hot summer and they still lived in cramped rooms. Water was leaking into the classrooms, but they kept painting from morning to night.” Zhou explains that with its focus on art education, Five Colours is not primarily a fundraising organisation. Although it relies on private donations and corporate support from companies like Asia’s luxury Shangri-La hotel group, the foundation has remained low-key in terms of public events.
One notable exception is a charity auction dinner that was held at the Shangri-La Chengdu in January. A total of 19 of China’s most renowned contemporary artists, including Zhang Xiaogang, Zhou Chunya, Ding Yi and Liu Wei, donated twenty paintings for the auction.
The glamorous event attracted over 240 guests, including some of the biggest names in Chinese art, high-profile collectors, socialites and press from Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. The sales, conducted by an auctioneer from Christie’s, helped to raise over RMB15 million for Five Colours.
The children have also had the opportunity to exhibit their work in Beijing’s Today Art Museum and the Shenzhen Art Museum. As Zhou observes, most art graduates could only dream of seeing their work on the walls of such recognised spaces and, in many ways, the Five Colours students are incredibly lucky.
But what is most striking about these kids is how firmly rooted their expectations are in reality and how clear their outlooks are on life. It is also, says Zhou, what makes them promising artists: “The most important thing about learning to paint is maintaining an uncluttered mind. Because of their situation, they’re not distracted by many of the things that other children think about, and it’s easier for them to concentrate on their art … It seems to calm them. Now they create excellent work.”
There is no doubt, watching them, that the Five Colours Foundation has done wonderful work in bringing these children peace in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy. Zhou and the other teachers have, they say, opened their minds and made sure they found something for which, and by which, to live.
Most of all, though, the foundation has given them each other. And the lasting impression we have of the students at Hua Xin is that they are great, loyal friends.
“What I truly want to do is to help disabled people throughout China,” Zhou says of his foundation’s future. “And if possible, to move into developing countries where they are not given the necessary care and respect.”
Although he seems optimistic, the artist explains that a shortage of volunteers and language barriers will keep the organisation from being able to expand outside China in the near future. Within the country, Zhou also aims to inspire a stronger and more thoughtful appreciation of art in general. “Because,” he says, “our lives need art.” Thanks to Zhou’s vision, a group of hopeful young people will grow up believing that is true.
by Samantha Kuok Leese
Translations by Sophie Meng
Taken from the Glass archive – issue 11, Trust

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