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December 2, 2020

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Turning over a new leaf after retirement

AUTUMN poetically refers to the evening of life, but for retiree Yu Shuyuan, it was a new beginning.

For Yu, 71, autumn is exemplified in the brilliant colors of tree foliage. The resident of Dachang Town in Baoshan District has been creating artwork with leaves for about 20 years.

The former physical therapist at Baosteel told Shanghai Daily in a recent interview that when she retired, she was looking for any inspiration in life and she discovered it in nature.

“I found myself starting to dread autumn because the season reminded me that I might be sliding toward the winter of my life,” she said. “I needed to find a new passion. Then I became utterly fascinated by colorful fallen leaves, and that grew into the idea for artwork that would truly redeem old age.”

With no background in art, she educated herself on the fundamentals of painting. But instead of a brush, she uses layered leaves and flower petals to create artwork that reflects both nature and people.

With no background in botany, she read up on trees and leaves. She collected leaves both from around town and on trips elsewhere.

“I become so excited every time I find a different shade of green, brown or red,” she said. “The wrinkles of thinner and softer leaves are expressive, and the thicker, harder leaves make perfect base materials.”

Yu first dries the leaves to better preserve their colors. The leaves are lightly microwaved or dipped in alcohol to dehydrate them or simply left to dry up. Then they are pressed between pages of books.

Years later, Yu’s leaf paintings still change hues but not to the point of becoming indiscernible. She keeps the artwork on oil painting canvases.

In creating a leaf painting, Yu starts with a design in her mind. Then she looks for leaves to recreate the image and arranges them on paper.

All that in place, Yu carefully cuts shapes from the leaves and pastes them on the sticky side of double-sided tape. After cutting out the leaf shapes from the tapes, she pastes the leaves onto paper.

“At first I used glue, but it tended to overflow and create shiny spots that spoiled the picture,” she said.

Yu often seeks inspiration for her artwork from Chinese masterpieces.

In reprising a famous painting of withering lotuses by legendary Chinese painter Qi Baishi, a recurrent motif in Chinese paintings, she used soft dried cabbage leaves for the dreamy pale yellow of the lotuses. The blue on the feathers of a bird in the picture came from a small flower near her home that she has yet to identify.

Yu is most proud of her painting of an elegant Chinese lady wearing a transparent top and a short white dress. After failed attempts at seeking the ideal leaves to use for the woman’s skin, she settled on wood flakes from a neighbor’s home refurbishment. She layered the flakes with the shiny, transparent leaves of a local plant and finally got the perfect skin tone.

Because no leaves can duplicate the color white, Yu used the white skin of the Chinese onion and the membrane inside eggs to create the woman’s dress.

One of her favorite paintings is of a little child sitting by a pond, trying to net a frog. She created the work in 2013 during a visit to relatives in the UK.

“I brought some leaves with me and looked for nice fallen leaves in parks there for my painting,” she said.

Leaves open a world of imagination.

The natural veins of leaves make pleated skirts. Black leaves make holes on other leaves. Butterflies and dragonflies fly with real wings. There can be dozens of colors on one of Yu’s leaf “paintings.” She said it can take her two to three months to finish one work.

Apart from imaginative solutions, her artwork requires great care. Some of the work is incredibly delicate, like silken threads of a spider’s net, cut out before being pasted onto the paper.

Luo Wenhua, Yu’s husband, is an amateur sculptor and calligraphy artist. He has been very supportive of her work over the years, from purchasing painting books and conducting experiments on leaf preservation to framing her pictures.

Indeed, the concept of loving couples is a recurrent theme in Yu’s paintings. It’s not surprising that Luo’s guitar appears in some of her paintings.

Over the years, Yu has created about 60 leaf artworks. The Baoshan District Library hosted an exhibition of 45 of her works in 2016.

Yu said she never plans to sell her unique paintings. Money is not the point of her endeavors.

“I hope to publish a book of my paintings, accompanied by my poems,” she said. “I want people to see that neglected things can be turned into art and hope to raise public awareness of the beauty of nature.”


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