This blog post was originally published in my newsletter earlier in March. Edited for clarification.
Being invited to the inaugural 2018 Huize Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing, China, was a big honor for me. I did not expect it. There are plentiful outstanding painters in the watercolor world, and I was surprised (and flattered) to have been invited. Our Western contingent hailed from Australia, Brazil, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, the US, and Germany. The Eastern contingent arrived from Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and over 50 Chinese nationals from all over the country. I met so many first-rate, virtuoso painters, it was intimidating and especially inspiring! After 20 hours’ total travel time (San Francisco to Chengdu to Kunming to Qujing) I fell dead asleep in bed. Let me tell you, the airport at Kunming is regarded as “medium-sized”, with just over 150 gates. This was my first hint that It’s Different In China (and it wasn’t the last). Everything is big. People are everywhere. It took time to get used to that!
As this was a plein air event, the group of artists were shuttled to various painting locations: traditional villages in the heart of a bustling town or in a sweeping valley (It’s Different In China), a river surrounded by mountains, a factory in the countryside. Painters were given a choice of locations, and my selections, as a first-timer in Asia, were based on curiosity. As with painting outdoors, the first step is finding a scene. By the time you’ve decided, an Asian artist has already finished their first wash. While you’re waiting on your first wash to dry, they’re on their second painting. Some of the Asian artists were fast!
The work I saw were impressive explorations of composition, perspective, and proportion. Interpretations of scenes ranged from graphic to naturalistic, wildly imagined to actual color. The variety was exemplary. Not to mention the artists themselves who, despite the language difference, were affable. Art transcends many barriers: visual and visceral, it extends a hand to everyone, reminding us we are all the same inside.
There were other things to do, of course. A first-night opening ceremony was followed by a group painting demo and an East-West seminar the following night. (Yours truly croaked out a few jetlagged words.) An outdoor picnic the third night preceded a bonfire and celebration. I participated in jurying a student show on the fourth night. On the fifth and final day there was a public paint-out (a long strip of paper was rolled out and sectioned on a long table, and artists were invited to paint a section), followed by a closing ceremony and a public exhibition. Because this was a government-sponsored event, the care and detail with which they coordinated the last day was breathtaking. The only time we (as in Westerners, really) do something on a similar scale is during the Olympics. Yes, I am exaggerating, but not by much. As my Australian friend and fellow painter Herman put it, “in our countries they only sponsor football players”. Sad but true, the Arts are always the first thing scratched in most budgets…
On that last day, the Chinese held a public presentation at the Huize Hongse Culture Exhibition Hall. There were dance performances and gifts made by children in the local schools, professional singers, and celebrity MCs (It’s Different In China). There was a short demonstration of watercolor painting and calligraphy writing. Speeches were made by government officials, after that came a presentation of the results of the juried student competition. All the artists involved in the day’s earlier paint-out were invited onstage to stand behind their section of painting. Finally, everyone was invited into the Art Museum to view all the work submitted by the painters. Back at the hotel, one last dinner with multiple toasts from various officials and organizers concluded the event. Perhaps it was just coincidence that the Chinese Lantern Festival ended that Friday; at any rate, fireworks later that night were a very appropriate ending.
Three weeks later, I am still processing my thoughts on China. I’ve started posting images on Instagram (and Facebook), and I’ll continue through the end of the month. China was interesting on many levels, to put it mildly. Art is given attention that cannot be compared at a public (as opposed to privately-funded) level: travel and accommodations taken care of in advance; readily-available shuttles and cars to drive to painting locations; intriguing or eclectic painting locations; good, local meals; and engaging interpreters. The climate in southwest China is similar to California. It was very dry and sunny, not ideal for watercolor painting but not bad either. Thankfully it was not hot. I was able to take a break one day to walk along the streets, a brief respite from painting. Outdoor markets, the sound of children over the constant barrage of cars, stray dogs, people hanging laundry out to dry. Slices of life, a familiar refrain around the world.
That is not to say there aren’t problems in China. There needs to be better education about trash disposal and pollution in general, environmental problems to the scale of 1.3 billion people. Often the beautiful countryside is littered. People also smoke everywhere, inside and outside, like it used to be in the US 25 years ago. On our way home we flew into Shanghai, and true to all the rumors about air quality, the city was having a foggy day. Well, it wasn’t fog… But I digress. You’re here for the art, right?
Final thoughts: Personally, the best part was connecting with the people in the villages we visited. At one, an old man was so happy to have me painting outside his home, he invited me in for tea! A smile, an offer to watch my easel while I wandered looking for other painting spots, an impulsive gift of rosehip tea in a bag. The Chinese people are joyful and friendly, and despite not having much of anything, open their house to you. It was a humbling experience.
Would I go to China again? In a heartbeat. Once you get past politics and policies you always meet wonderful people wherever you go in this world.
There is still a lot to paint in China.
My heartfelt gratitude goes to Mr. Li, Mr. Tu, and all the organizers of this inaugural 2018 Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing-Huize, Yunnan, China for extending the invitation to me. To the hotel staff, the Tea Lady, our drivers (!), and the various people who turned out each day to watch plein air painting, thank you. Last of all, thanks to Dande and David, whose English skills were honed during those 7 days. Xièxiè!
A VERY, VERY BRIEF TREATISE ON PAINTING IN CHINA: The watercolor tradition in Chinese painting goes back as far as 400 BC. We are all familiar with the traditional style of Chinese painting: calligraphy, court/royal vignettes, grandiose landscapes. Exposure to Western art and artists, from the late 19th century onwards, gradually influenced subject and technique. Today, invitations extended to international watercolorists maintain that creative exchange, and the benefits can be witnessed on both sides.
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Frank. What a trip! I’m still amazed that you painted those wonderful pieces plein air. And your writing is as eloquent as your painting. Do they post the paintings of all the participants anywhere we could view? I’d love to see the diversity of styles and techniques.
Kaaren, those are not all plein air! Some are studio from photographs I have taken there. There is no website that posts any of the works done that week. The Chinese all use ‘wechat’ (it’s their facebook except bigger) and pretty much everything is posted there including the program etc. I actually had to download it because a lot of announcements were made on there throughout the painting week. Thanks for the nice comment!
They are still gorgeous paintings!
Maybe I’ll check out wechat. Thanks for the reply.