Plum Blossom Ink Art may be painted in Brighton – a city that’s backed by the Sussex Downs, looks out to the English Channel and is filled with British eccentricity – but it has deep Chinese roots.
I was born and grew up in Xingyi, not far from China’s south-western border with Vietnam.
One of my earliest memories is of watching my father at his calligraphy practice. When I told him that I loved the smell of the ink on the rice paper, and the way he moved his brush, he stopped writing, asked me to sit next to him and showed me how to hold the bamboo brush. This peaceful scene was my introduction to the ancient arts of China.
Life has taken me far from my heritage, before leading me back, full circle.
Out into the world
I went to university in Chongqing, and studied Japanese language and literature. My career, as an interpreter and then as a project manager in dual-cultural companies, led me to Hong Kong, Japan and eventually England. It was here that I met my partner and had our son.
But when he was just a year old, I was made redundant. At this same time, I was hit by ill health and needed three major operations, and lost my father. I felt lost, and questioned who I was. I had no confidence and no energy.
It was at this lowest ebb that I felt drawn back to my Chinese roots.
Voices from ancient China
I began reading about the ‘literati’ or ‘scholar-officials’ of ancient China – the intellectuals who mastered the four arts of calligraphy, brush painting, guqin (a plucked seven-stringed instrument) and the strategy game Qi.
Exploring their philosophical works, I felt the need to return to Chinese calligraphy myself.
Once these fine brush strokes have been mastered, Chinese brush painting is seen as the next step, and learning this beautiful art form gave me an outlet for my creativity.
Visits to the Chinese collections at the British Museum were endlessly stimulating. An exhibition on the Ming dynasty featured the amazing 8-meter-long scroll of Plum Blossoms and Moonlight by Chen Lu - I was mesmerised.
Founding Little Dragon Mandarin School allowed me to reconnect with my language of birth, and to share it with local children. I even learnt to play the guqin.
An unexpected mentor
During this period I travelled back to China regularly, each time seeking to learn from skilled artists. But in a twist of fate, it was a British artist who had the most profound effect on my work.
Jane Dwight was introduced to brush painting when she lived in the Philippines, and studied under Professor Chen Bin Sun, Cai Xiaoli and Qu Lei Lei. Her exquisite paintings are admired around the world, and her book is regarded as the Bible of Chinese painting.
When I met her in 2014, I discovered that she lived close to my home in Brighton. We began holding a ‘Yaji’, or elegant gathering, every month – she showed me how to improve my painting, and I helped with her calligraphy and her Mandarin.
Finding my own direction
I now have a painting ‘studio’ in a bright corner of our lounge, with all my materials to hand - xuan paper, brushes, Chinese ink, stone seals and red ink paste.
I like to paint in the ancient free style, and am drawn to traditional bird-and-flower and lotus themes. But my composition is modern, influenced primarily by 20th century and contemporary artists including Master Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian and Lou Shibai.
As I’ve grown in skill and confidence, I’ve realised that I want to share my work and in 2019 I began exhibiting, at Lewes Art Wave then at Brighton’s Maker's Fair.
Chinese art guided me out of a difficult time. I want to help other women who feel isolated and far from home to connect with their creativity through traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting so that they can learn valuable skills and gain joyful confidence. I now teach calligraphy and brush painting in online workshops, and have given live demonstrations in both Brighton and London. help women who feel isolated, to connect with their creativity
I’m a member of the Chinese Brush Painters Society and of the Seven Seas Institute of Chinese Calligraphy.
The meaning of my art
My work is heavily influenced by the philosophies of Confucius, Taoism and Buddhism.
We live in a busy and troubled world. The beauty and simplicity of a single Chinese character – evolved as part of an ancient pictorial language – can be both calming and profound.
I hope that my art communicates this feeling of peace and oneness. It is my own, personal way of working towards a more harmonious society.