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March 16, 2010

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Ink-wash pioneer turns on tradition to find new style

THE only great art is reputed to come from great misery, and Shi Qi's art is no exception. Even from birth, his life has been tragic.

When he was born, his family was too poor to feed another mouth. So Shi's grandmother sacrificed her life to the new born - she wrapped herself in a quilt and self immolated.

"To this day, I don't even have a picture of her," recalls the 70-year-old artist. "I only remember that I was six or seven years old when my parents first told me the story."

If Shi's grandmother could see him now, she would be satisfied with the self-sacrifice made to her grandson.

Today Shi is considered a pioneer in exploring new styles in stereotyped, traditional ink-wash painting.

At the end of this month, Shi's solo exhibition, featuring nearly 100 of his ink-wash paintings since the 1970s, will be unveiled at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing.

He is also the first Chinese artist to collaborate with the Steinway piano company which as early as 1857 made its first art case piano, designed by English artist Alma Tadema.

Shi's art piece called "Peacock" has been used for the "Sound of Harmony" model piano, a 2.7-meter-long instrument on which the multi-colored art has been inlaid over its body, lid and music stand.

With a market value of eight million yuan (US$1.17 million), Sound of Harmony, the most expensive Steinway art case piano, will be used as a special performance piano at the upcoming World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

"Don't call me a master, I just want to try something different on rice paper instead of repeating what the ancient Chinese masters have done," says Shi during his short stay in Shanghai. "I really admire those artists who go to extremes in pursuing their art."

Born in 1939 in Fuqing, Fujian Province, Shi had no reason to fall in love with "art," but he chose every opportunity to express himself, even if it only meant making scratches on the ground.

"When the other boys were playing outside, I stayed at home painting," he recalls. "During that period, it was impossible for me to have an art teacher. I used my own imagination to outline this world."

There is a famous Chinese saying - "if it is gold, sooner or later it sparkles."

Shi was accepted into a local fine art academy and his life started to take another path, totally different from his family members. "One's character decides everything. I feel my character suits an artist with ambition," he reveals.

Trained with a traditional art background, Shi shot to fame as early as the late 1970s. He ought to have led a comfortable life since then by building on or repeating his art style, but he didn't because he tried to fuse traditional ink-wash painting with a modern touch.

"I tried some Western techniques with style and colors about 25 years ago," he says. "But the result wasn't satisfactory as it was too simple and shallow."

Shi then read many art books and related information looking for an answer.

"Traditional Chinese paintings are categorized into implicative and realistic paintings which are not visually striking enough, particularly in modern times," he explains.

So he decided to merge Western impressionism, abstract and realistic styles with his brushstrokes.

Consequently, his ink-wash strokes parallel, overlap or blend with some striking oil colors. The comparison in color, space and visual depth is akin to a "moving" flash that stirs the viewer's thought.

However, in this chaotic world made up of lines and colors, some fragments can still be recognized as having firm shapes.

In fact, Shi is direct, passionate and sincere in expressing his art concepts.

"But these paintings were heavily criticized when they were first unveiled to the public," he says. "You know, it was just hard for some traditional artists and critics to accept something that was not in the mainstream."

Yet the stubbornness in his character worked and his individual style evolved.

"That's me and my style, whether you accept it or not," he adds.

Consequently the artist is not a revered name in the art community. He even isolates himself from his peers.

"I'd rather go to see some exhibitions by young people. They are the future. Sometimes they are not so mature and are even on the wrong road, but they still have time to grow up," says the veteran artist.

However, time, in Shi's eyes, is his greatest hurdle.

"I have many hobbies, like reading books, watching films and travelling," he says with a sigh. "But I really can't waste my time on them."

Shi uses Da Vinci's example.

"Da Vinci wanted to leave behind 180 masterpieces when he died, but only left about seven pieces," he says. "I am not Da Vinci, so I must have more time to create my masterpieces."


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