Updated: 2013-11-14 08:19
By Mike Peters (China Daily)
A young woman with brittle-bone disease overcame the odds with the help of a few good Samaritans to chase her dream of becoming an artist. Her works are receiving positive reviews, as Mike Peters finds out.
If you ask most people how many times they have broken a bone in their lives, they can come up with the answer pretty quickly. But Wang Mengxing, a 21-year-old artist living in a village in Langfang, Hebei province, puckers a brow at the question. She's not sure how many times she broke a bone in just the past year. Born with brittle-bone disease, snapping a finger or a forearm is an everyday danger despite the protective embraces of a wheelchair and her loving family.
In fact, as Wang raises her right arm in an effort to count last year's casualties, her delicate limb extends at such an awkward angle that her assembled friends flinch a little at her effort.
If she feels any discomfort, however, it doesn't register in her bright eyes. She is quietly enjoying a terrific day. She has just visited the bank to safely deposit money - a fat lot of money - earned from the sales at her first gallery show.
And now, a respected art consultant is visiting her small home studio, full of enthusiasm for her newest work.
In one image, an eager young woman with a page-boy haircut and big round glasses is choosing a red dress from a cupboard. Next to it is a pastoral image titled Life: Sitting on the Grass, Breathing Fresh Air, Listening to Music That I Like. In a third, she sits at the edge of a stage in a wheelchair, casting a shadow of a ballerina that seems to fly like a swan.
"That's how I see myself," she says with a shrug and a shy smile.
"There is a wonderful independence and freshness in her work," says Emily de Wolfe Pettit of the self-portraits, images as clean-lined and colorful as the manga art Mengxing loves.
"There's a very graphic element - it's very clear and direct how Mengxing wants to depict herself," says Pettit, director of Atkins & Ai, with studios in Beijing and London. "And on the other hand there's a lovely, lyrical, romantic quality."
There's a lovely, lyrical, romantic quality about the artist, too.
"We found this girl with enormous self-confidence and spirit, about 15 or 16 years old at the time," says social entrepreneur Ian Charles Stuart. "She had never gone to art school and was already painting and sketching by herself, self-taught. (She) was already trying to learn a little bit of English from friends nearby, and we just thought this was someone who should be given a little bit of help."
Wang and her sister, Yize, now 14, were born with a condition that understandably terrifies parents. Such children from rural families are often abandoned in China, but the girls' farmer father, Wang Jianjun, and her mother, Rui Hong, say they never considered handing them over to a care institution.
What Stuart and his partner had in mind was not a cash donation but a more practical boost. First, modern wheelchairs gave both Wang and her sister the chance to get around the house and the village without being pushed or carried.
Next came introductions to movers in the arts community, including a gallery owner in the hip Caochangdi area and art professor Zheng Tao, who has become both fan and mentor.
Wang's art then was classical stuff: A luminous copy of a Song Dynasty (960-1279) painting of two phoenixes, for example, and a similarly traditional ink-and-brush study of pomegranates. ZHC Art Center mounted an exhibition of 15 of these paintings - all snapped up by collectors such as film director Tsui Hark within 90 minutes.
A few weeks before the show, the organizers made a suggestion. Could Wang paint something else - in a different style to show a little more range?
That's when the artist began to sketch what became the luminous self-portraits that Pettit and others think will open doors to the next chapter in the young artist's life.
"There is an aspirational quality that is very warming to see," Pettit says, "as well as the way she uses colors - extremely bold and powerful. Her composition is extremely well-balanced."
Pettit says it may be a blessing that Wang is entirely self-taught. "Of course, in the Chinese system, there is a lot of copying and replication of previous masters. Here we see none of that, so it has a wonderful freshness.
"By surrounding herself with more artists and sharing her ideas in her artwork, she could really blossom."
That prospect means more to Wang than the praise for her artistry. Despite a keen eagerness to learn, her formal education came to an end when she finished primary school. The secondary school was on the second floor.
It might as well have been on Mars.
But Wang was lucky. Stuart James, who co-founded the Wheels Plus Wings nonprofit agency, was visiting a nearby orphanage when he heard about the homebound girl who was teaching herself art. He quickly became convinced that she had the grit and the talent to overcome her physical challenges.
A self-propelled wheelchair gave her new independence, and a computer with Internet access gave her a huge window to the outside world.
"Mengxing by herself found courses so that she could study English," says Stuart. "She found access to different artists' work" and expanded her own style.
She has attracted the attention of another gallerist and a book publisher, James says, because her paintings are of such a high standard. "People may go to an auction and spend a few hundred yuan out of charity," he adds, "but they don't spend more than 10,000 yuan ($1,640) on a painting unless the talent is there."
"People are attracted to the work she's done, and also to the character and the person that Mengxing has become," Stuart says. "She's alive, positive and energetic. All of these things encourage people to believe that she can do the things that she wishes to do."
At the top of that list, the artist herself says, is the chance to study art at a private art school. "That is what the money I can earn from my paintings means to me."
"I am still a shy person," she says. "I don't like to talk. I like to be the audience, to listen. I have a lot to learn, but I know it's out there for me."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Above: Each of Wang Mengxing's paintings at a ZHC Art Center exhibition in Beijing sold for several thousand yuan. Below: The artist began with traditional painting styles, but her recent self-portraits are getting attention. Photos by Bruno Maestrini / China Daily
(China Daily 11/14/2013 page20)