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Metamorphosis of an artist

IN a former Russian Orthodox church in Shanghai, Shi Shaoping paints mysterious, shifting frog-like creatures on huge canvases in his "Metamorphosis" series. His church-studio itself has undergone transformation (it once was a washing machine factory) and his own life has undergone metamorphic shifts.

Change, transformation, metamorphosis is Shi's theme.

A 500-square-meter studio in the former French concession, a generous patron who covers all expenses, and the reclamation of his identity as a respected and innovative artist - it seems too good to be true.

"Some people say too many impossible things happened to me and maybe they are right," said the usually reclusive Shi, who is in his early 40s and rarely holds exhibitions. The last one was at the Royal College of Art in London, where "Metamorphosis" was shown last year.

Later this month it will be shown for the first time in China, in the former Orthodox Church, where shafts of light pour down on his amphibian works, creating a sense of their moving, emerging, coalescing in water.

The exhibition title is "GENESIS." This time he adds a giant installation, a silkworm's white cocoon - perhaps the ultimate symbol of metamorphosis - hanging from the church's vaulted ceiling. It's made of silk.

Speaking of transformation, Shi holds out his ID photo taken 10 yeas ago, and laughs at his own transformation.

"I seem to have a second life," he said in an interview with Shanghai Daily.

Shi, born in 1968, majored in stage design at the Shanghai Theater Academy that has nurtured big names in contemporary art, including Chen Zhen, Li Shan and Cai Guoqiang. Because of his excellence and strong communications skills, Shi was assigned a political career upon graduation. He eventually became deputy director of the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, one of the country's most respected artistic organizations. He worked there for 10 years and his prospects were bright.

Abruptly, he quit in 2006 and returned to art.

"My friends were shocked," he said. "Remember, it was a government job. People in the Party liked me and told me my future was promising. Being a Party leader here is still attractive. But I knew at the bottom of my heart that I was not happy. I should have another kind of life."

There was a metamorphosis. He picked up his paint brushes.

"I didn't feel any time distance between me and the palette, it was as if we were melted together. It was a great pleasure to pour all my emotions and feelings through such a medium. Art is really magical," Shi said.

When a ray of light falls through a church window, Shi feels that everything has disappeared, except himself and what he calls his "creature paintings."

"It is a moment of the greatest luxury," he said.

In his works there are color splashes - greens, reds, pinks, browns and yellows - suggesting traditional ink-wash paintings. But there are also outlines of unknown creatures, some with spotted skins, like frogs, some seem to have tentacles and gills.

"Everything has a reason," he said, referring to his frog subject matter. "My father was a distinguished biologist and I often saw various animal specimens in his laboratory."

His childhood memories coincide with his philosophy of life's changes and transformations.

"I like ambiguity and the frogs appear to be on a journey and looking for something. They are going through change that takes them to new places," he said.

The metamorphosis from tadpole to frog seems magical and the fluidly moving creatures on his canvas are filled with energy.

"I suppose that unconsciously the time I spent with the Song and Dance Ensemble has influenced my paintings," he said. "Back then, I spent a lot of time with the performers and they were all so free with their bodies. I can still remember their movements, how they would casually assume the most unusual poses. To them it was all quite natural.

"I learned how movement can be controlled to convey anger, humor, sadness. Perhaps that's why the gestures I paint are quite unusual for a frog."

Though frogs represent good luck, fertility and yin (cold) energy in traditional Chinese folklore, not many people would be captivated by a canvas of writhing, somewhat disturbing amphibians.

Asked if he worries about selling his work, Shi laughed. "Believe it or not, I have a friend who gives me several million yuan a year to cover all my expenses. This might sound incredible but we are soul mates and he fully understands me and supports my dreams."

He is now working on his silkworm installation, joking, "My major was stage design and this is something I'm good at.

"I have been a hermit for years and now it's time for me to display what I have been and what I have done."

Some paintings will be exhibited this coming week at ShContemporary at Shanghai Exhibition Center.


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