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December 16, 2016

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Tapping a muse in the solitude of mountains

SOMETIMES when Tian Xuesen sits in city traffic, waiting for a red light to turn green, he feels said he feels dislocated.

Small wonder that urban noise and crowds make him uncomfortable. More that half his year is spent deep in the silent mountains of Shaanxi Province, where he paints.

“With no one to talk to, I am surrounded by silence for weeks in the mountain,” says the 41-year-old oil painter, referring to his refuge in Huashan (Mount Hua), about 120 kilometers east of Xi’an, the capital city, and the westernmost peak of the “Five Great Mountains of China.”

He talks slowly with an uneasy smile, trying to pick the right words when back in “civilization.”

“The mountain is and will be the sole subject of the rest of my life,” he says.

Indeed, for the last seven years he has painting nothing but Huashan, revealing it in morning light, in sunset glow, in winter snow and in spring lushness. It is somewhat reminiscent of Cezanne’s series of paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire in different seasons and different lights.

Huashan, under Tian’s brush, reflects different moods, sometimes powerful and solemn, sometimes gentle and blithe.

Tian, a native of Shandong Province, is currently in Shanghai for an exhibition of some 50 of his Huashan paintings. After the exhibition, he will return to the mountain.

In 2007, finding himself stuck in a bottleneck and bored with painting the usual landscapes and still life, Tian desperately sought escape.

“I was looking for a subject for my painting, a subject that would be unique, worth a lifetime of devotion and something no one had painted before,” he says.

He bought a van and started a 40,000-kilometer odyssey to fine nature’s muse, setting off from Shanghai to all corners of the country. He wrote a will to his family before he hit the road.

During the one-year trip, Tian crossed river ice, traversed deserts, trekked through the Pamir Mountains and even reached the base camp of Mount Everest. He painted what he saw along the way.

“The journey helped me to think about my life and my painting,” he says. “It’s not because I enjoy solitude or was brave to risk it going alone. I was looking for my life’s goal and was willing to sacrifice everything for that.”

When he came across Huashan, he knew he had found his artistic grail. Standing on the edge of the mountain’s cliff, he was awed by the magnificence of the mountain range. “It was a place worth all my life,” he says.

The mountain, its southern peak rising 2,155 meters, is regarded as a cradle of Chinese civilization thousands of years ago and is also the considered the birthplace of Taoism. From an artistic view, the granite mountain stood between heaven and earth.

“It’s powerful and vigorous, a symbol for manhood and aggression,” Tian says.

In 2010, after arranging his affairs back in Shanghai, Tian packed his things, jumped into his van and drove to Huashan.

He rented a small farmer’s house at the foot of the mountain as place to live, work and store his paintings.

Before tackling the summit, he painted nearby valleys and slopes.

“You need to know the environment first, approach it with patience and get familiar step-by-step,” he said. “It’s like people establishing a relationship with each other.”

In his third year there, Tian started to paint the main peak.

He worked by day when the light was good and slept in the van or tent at night, occasionally wakened by birdcalls or the roar of the wind. Sometimes, passing mine workers would flash their torches and peek through the tent on their way to work.

Meals were simple — available seasonal plants cooked with a portable gas tank, or just bread, biscuits and mountain water.

Years of living alone in the mountain trained Tian to observe the sky and forecast the quixotic mountain weather. “I learned when to get back to my home before it started to rain,” he says.

Carrying his painting gear was always a big headache. Since it could take him several months to finish one painting from a certain perspective, he was forced to tote unfinished paintings up and down every day.

He would park his van at the foot of the mountain and carry a painting into deep forest areas. He had to trek along narrow, slippery paths, always alert to whipping branches and wild animals. Several times, he nearly fell from steep cliffs.

“The difference between life and death was just a tenth of a second,” he said.

Last year, Tian hired a local beekeeper to carry his paintings and cook noodles for him. In autumn, the farmer invited Tian to taste his honey.

Mountain life is hazardous. Tian has been confronted by wild boars, attacked by snakes and stung by bees that caused him to swell up for a week.

“It’s a daily routine in the mountains,” he says. “But man is an animal, too, so we can make peace with wildlife.”

He once befriended a snake that slithered around a painting site, talking to the creature as though it were a long-lost friend. “It visited me every day and we got along well with each other,” he recalled.

Time in the mountains stood still for Tian.

“Sometimes I felt like I was a rock or a gust of wind, becoming part of the mountain,” he says.

He chatted with flowers, read ancient books on painting, wrote diaries and spent hours observing plant life.

“Because of the high altitude, plants have to be hardy against the wind and cold. They thrust roots into tiny crannies in the rocks, surviving against all odds,” he says. “It moved me greatly.”

Sometimes Tian became so absorbed in observing and thinking, that he would manage only a few brushstrokes a day.

Over the years, his style changed subtly. The mountain in his early works is very powerful and strong, exuding tension, whereas the later works show the peak from a more gentle perspective.

“Years of living alone in the mountain have taught me what to choose and what to give up,” Tian says. “I have chosen to give up city conveniences and embrace solitude and art.”


Tian Xuesen’s Huashan exhibition

Date: December 20-January 17, 9am-5pm

Venue: 3/F, Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, 100 People’s Ave

Admission: 30 yuan


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