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Peasant painters and their pretty pictures

(China Daily)

10:30, September 14, 2011

Women of the Sea, by Yu Tongle

BEIJING, Sept. 14 (Xinhuanet) – Lizifang township in Zhuanghe city of Liaoning province is a center for distinctive folk paintings of local scenes. Zhu Chengpei and Zhang Xiaomin report.

For peasant painter Yu Tongle, 51, Lizifang is a magnet. He often drives there, about 60 km from where he lives. "Here, painters never worry about lack of inspiration. The green mountains, blue sea, narrow country roads, simple farmers and fishermen, everything you see makes a good picture," Yu says at his studio, filled with his paintings about rural life.

"I love the villagers. Seeing them feeding pigs, raising hens, fishing, reaping the rice, I feel relaxed and just want to paint scenes there," he says.

Lizifang of Zhuanghe city is about 220 km northeast of Dalian, Liaoning province. With a population of about 58,000, it has 20 villages.

Some 30 people, including farmers, primary school teachers and small business owners, are well known for their peasant paintings around town.

Yu says peasant paintings reflect the life of local residents and communicate their longing for a better future.

"Our pictures are somewhat similar to decorative paintings, with exaggerated images, bright colors and well-balanced compositions," he says.

Yu says the peasant painting style typically exaggerates the human form so it has a cartoon-like quality, such as big hands and feet, to indicate the strength of the industrious farmers.

"It is more important to capture the spirit of the subject," he says.

Near the Lizifang township government building, there is the three-story cultural center for folk artists.

A large mural greets visitors at the entrance to the building.

The 2 meters by 7 meters picture, Hongya Fengqing ("Local Conditions") illustrates the environment and customs of Zhuanghe. It has 68 vivid characters and portrays a farm wedding ceremony.

Local government officials and painters held a brainstorming session to come up with the content for the mural and Yu's student, Ni Zhenli, 32, painted it.

Ni is the only person who works at the cultural center and is paid by the local government.

"The center is the base for nearly 1,000 members from five cultural associations in the town, including painting, calligraphy, and paper cutting," Ni says, "We organize activities for members almost every week."

Ni says the center also invites professional artists from Dalian and elsewhere to train members and organize entries for painting contests and exhibitions around the country.

Hundreds of the center's painters have won prizes at contests and their works published in newspapers or magazines.

In 1992, Zhuanghe was named one of the "Hometowns of Chinese Modern Folk Paintings" by the Ministry of Culture, along with Huxian in Shaanxi province and Yangliuqing in Tianjin.

"All our pictures are about our colorful daily lives," says Ni, introducing more than 200 works of art at the center's gallery.

Many of the pictures have an agricultural theme.

"Farm work is really beautiful. In the spring, peasants plow fields and the furrows undulate on the green hills. It makes for a beautiful image," Ni says.

He says Lizifang's peasant paintings took shape in the 1980s, derived from the mural paintings and paper-cutting works that became popular in the 1950s, combined with rural drawings and posters from the 1970s.

"Yu Tongle, deputy head of Zhuanghe Cultural Center, was one of the first painters at Lizifang to paint peasant pictures," Ni says, "Peasant paintings changed his life."

Yu was born and grew up in Lizifang's Shuangmiao village. While most of his fellow villagers made a living from fishing or farming, Yu developed his talent for painting in his 20s, mainly painting on furniture.

At that time, it was a popular art form in rural Liaoning province to draw pictures on glass wardrobes and other pieces of furniture. Yu did this for about eight years.

In the late 1980s, farmers all over the country were encouraged to draw pictures in the Huxian county painting style.

Dozens of folk painters, including Yu, were encouraged to attend a training program developed by the local government, teaching peasant painting. They also visited Huxian and Yangliuqing to learn from seasoned painters.

Yu believes good work comes from real life. In 1989, he painted a picture featuring fishermen returning to port with a good catch. He went to the port every day for 10 days to ensure the painting was accurate.

A European diplomat bought the picture, Returning Fishermen, when it was shown at an exhibition in Beijing, in 1991.

Yu says painters borrow ideas from other folk arts such as paper-cutting and shadow plays, so it is rooted in rural traditions.

The deputy mayor of Zhuanghe, He Tong, is also an oil painter and one of his coastal scenes, which expresses his love of the area, is displayed on the office wall.

"We will provide more opportunity for our painters to learn from leading players," He says.

"Meanwhile, we must increase painters' income. Only in this way will more farmers will be encouraged to take it up and thereby guarantee its sustainable development."

He's comment is echoed by Yu Tongle.

"Each of my paintings can earn me several hundred yuan, but they're worth more," he says.

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