This post is a belated summary of a 2-month period on an arts residency in Lijiang, from December 2010 to February  2011.

It was quite by chance that I stumbled across Rhizome – a large courtyard hosting an arts complex and restaurant on the outskirts of Lijiang run by a French couple, their three children, Gizmo the dog and Alex.

Arriving at Rhizome in December

Undertaking an arts residency seemed like a wonderful opportunity to develop a freer, more personal, style after the intense concentration of working on botanical illustrations.

I was also intrigued by the Naxi minority, their pictographic language, and the Dongba shaman. What clinched it for me was the fact that they made their own paper. Surely I could draw on (!) all these elements, incorporate paintings of their medicinal/ sacred plants, and produce

The courtyard

something new and exciting, which would help to spread the word about their endangered culture – rather than exploit it.

Morning mist from the balcony

So I made the commitment to spend two months there, and hold an exhibition of my work in March, when Mika and Odile returned from a much-needed holiday over the Chinese New Year break.

I had no idea about arts residencies, and discovered that many are actually funded through grants or benefactors – particularly, it seems, in Europe and Australia. But obtaining a grant at this stage was not an option.

My monthly fee would provide accommodation and a studio space – and the support of Odile, herself a professional artist. On top of this I would need to cover food and all art expenses, including transport for research and interpreters.

It was a big financial decision for me as, apart from the botanical illustrations with the German scientist, I hadn’t earned any money since being made redundant in May 2009.

Leaving Shaxi

I said goodbye to Matthias and Veve several times, dragged Allen out of the shower he was having with Willy – only way to ensure his St Bernard kept up some standards of hygiene – and hugged people I hardly knew in my heightened state of anxiety.

Leaving Shaxi was hard.

Farewell Matthias & Veve

And Allen

The truth is I simply didn’t want to swap the beautiful, tranquil, Shaxi, my home for five months, for the tourist mayhem of Lijiang.

And Shirley & Alean from Horse Pen 46

However, the surrounding villages around Lijiang are worth visiting – and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which acts as a backdrop to much of the city, spectacular.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

As with any new venture – particularly a creative one – I suffered initially from a sense of confusion and self-doubt. That wasn’t helped by the disorientation of moving to a new place. And it was bitterly cold in Lijiang.

Keeping warm - my pixie hat

A note about the North/South Divide…

Traditionally, houses have no heating and the walls no insulation. I guess they figure it’s cold for only a few months of the year, and they just put on more clothes.

I also heard that China suffered a “heating divide” and found this bit of information on someone’s blog – who was obviously experiencing the winter chill factor:

“Since the 1950s, there has been no central heating in southern China, roughly defined as below the Yangtze River – even though temperatures fall below freezing in plenty of southern cities.

Back in the 50s that was a money-saving move because the state provided heat as part of the iron rice bowl welfare of communism. Free heating has ended, but the north-south divide is still in place.”

Here’s a map of China showing the path of the Yangtze. Lijiang is just near the first bend of the Yangtze, under the “h” of Chongqing.

Because of the large balcony and overhanging roof, the room at Rhizome was also much darker than I was used to; but as I intended to spend most of my time working in the studio, this didn’t matter too much. And it did force me out early in the morning to make coffee – one of the best purchases I’ve made in China was a cafetière from Dali.

Green tea is nice and refreshing during the day, but Oh! morning coffee is a necessity.

Modern Dongba paintings

My research revealed that there were a number of artists working with Naxi pictographs locally. These used bright acrylic colours and mainly very stylised depictions – often they were used to tell as story, as the pictographs would have done originally, but were pretty inaccessible if you couldn’t interpret them.

Modern Dongba paintings for sale

I didn’t particularly like them, and it certainly wasn’t a style I wanted to emulate, preferring the sensitivity of watercolour and the connection with tradition of using the Dongba paper. No-one seemed interested in showing the plants, so my approach was unique.

A paper trail…

One of the main challenges facing me was finding a good source of Dongba paper. Not the

The misleading W lichiangensis sign

poor quality stuff made from a mix of  pulp from various sources including Daphne odora and paper mulberry – with petals – which they sell to tourists in so many of the “tradition” shops in Lijiang, but that made from authentic material: Wikstroemia lichiangensis. Despite signs in the paper shops suggesting otherwise…

I started my search at the Dongba Cultural Museum outside Black Dragon Pool, and found a Dongba priest writing pictographs on some very fine paper, selling at ¥150 a go. I couldn’t bargain a blank sheet down below ¥100, so forked out the equivalent of £10, considering it an investment.

The paper had apparently been made up near Shangri-La: the villagers make a whole batch, then bring it down, selling the entire lot to the Museum. The girl working there – the only one who spoke a little English – didn’t have any contact details: they rely only on the villagers turning up once in a while to replenish stocks.

But I needed to find a much cheaper source: Without good paper my project would stumble at first hurdle – and I wouldn’t be able to do many paintings at £10 a throw…

Then Odile told me about a friend of hers, a Dongba shaman currently living inside the Black Dragon Pool park, whose wife makes paper. Odile’s Chinese is limited so we found a young Chinese student with a reasonable grasp of English to help us.

We took with us the usual gifts: oranges for the wife and, err, bijou for the Shaman. A young, talented man, he seems strangely displaced in the centre of a tourist park, despite it having a strong cultural significance for the Naxi, and a source of sacred spring water.

Over the six years that Odile has known him there has been a deterioration of his health and blackening of his teeth. He’s still in his 30s, a talented, gentle man, but one wonders what the future holds for Dongba shaman now, in this fast-changing world: where the “protection” provided by the UNESCO World Heritage Site for Naxi Culture in Lijiang has produced more of a theme park; where Dongba culture is exploited commercially. Where Dongba “paper” has been patented and is nothing more than cheap pulp.

We made an appointment to go and see the Shaman’s wife make the paper, and what we saw was the real stuff.

The Dongba's wife with the fibre

Where she got the W. lichiangensis branches from I don’t know

W lichiangensis soaking

– but again somewhere near Shangri-La: the

plant only grows in forests at an elevation of between 2600 and 3500m in SW Sichuan and NW Yunnan.

The process requires soaking for several days, mashing to a pulp, straining through a flat sieve, and rolling to remove excess water. We asked what she used for this, and she laughed: one of her husband’s bottles! Ever resourceful.

I promptly bought 20 sheets of pre-prepared paper, and started to experiment.

 

Mixing pulp with water

Smoothing out pulp in rack

Pressing out moisture

It had a really smooth surface and was very

Draining

resilient, unlike the tourist-bought material which acted like blotting paper.

I could blend colours on the surface and build up layers – very different from the Fabriano Artistico I’d used for the botanical illustrations, but an exciting departure.

 

Left to dry

The only “problem” I encountered was the strong visual texture of the fibers which might interfere with the detail.

But what to paint?

The studio space had a large table at a really good height where I could work easily,

The studio space

standing up. The balcony overhang protected the room from rain but restricted the light. With only filtered light coming from a side window it was essential to leave the wooden doors open. What with the bitter cold and strong afternoon winds I worked wrapped up, with fingerless gloves on, a lot of the time.

Of course finding paper to work on is one thing. Finding the right plants to paint was quite another.

And this turned out to be the main obstacle which I never really overcame.

Initially, Odile and I thought of Dr Ho in Baisha. He’s become quite a celebrity over the years: one of the ‘attractions’ mentioned in Lonely Planet guides, visited by the likes of Bruce Chatwin and Michael Palin, and with numerous interviews on radio and TV under his belt. But most of all he knows a lot about the local flora, having spent a great deal of his life collecting medicinal plants from the wild around Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Do Ho

It was not a satisfactory visit. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand what I wanted – he simply wasn’t interested. He basically said: “I’m 86 years old and tired. I only want to treat people.” Which I saw him do, at ¥100 a pop for some ground up herbs to a rather startled well-heeled Chinese woman from the city.

I had hoped that I would come away with a list of plants to kick off the project, or at least some sort of enthusiastic support. Instead I felt deflated. It was doubly difficult because my Chinese companion didn’t really understand, herself, what I wanted – her English was minimal and my ideas more complex than she could grasp.

My fall-back was to work on plants that I had painted before – the medicinal plants used by the Bai people, which are virtually all used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and also grow around Lijiang, so likely to be used by the Naxi. I could also work from photos of flowers I had taken – less ideal as I hadn’t studied them as closely. Working from life was impossible during the residency – it was the middle of winter and very little was in flower.

Odile was very supportive, but was at a loss herself to discover a way of finding out about the plants. Plus she had her own commitments: a young family to raise, and her studies several mornings a week learning Chinese at the local University.

But it wasn’t all work, and we managed to find time for some wonderful day-trips.

A time to work, a time to play

We were invited to attend a Tibetan festival at the Zhiyun Monastery near Lashi Hai reservoir and RAMSAR wetland site.

It was an extraordinarily colourful – and fun – event.

Dance parade

A dancer

Photo opps!

Musicians

And a very powerful and moving experience for some.

Devotee

The Address

The whole event went on well into the afternoon: there were food stalls outside, but we were invited to eat from the monastic kitchen in the side courtyard.

Monastic dejeurner

The monastery dates from the 1700s, but a new one was being built above it – from the roof were some really far-reaching views, but one could also see that the construction was being done very fast, and not with the greatest of care.

Under construction

A large paint job...

Puji Si Monastery

One afternoon we all piled into a hire-car and visited Puji Si monastery, about 5km west of Lijiang.

Someone enjoyed the day-trip!

We stopped at the end of a road in a small and walking up through the dusty hillside.

Puji Si Monastery

This small monastery had some really old paintings, but I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside.

They were gilding the roof when we arrived, and they offered us oranges. They were friendly, but weren’t so keen on us just wandering around.

One of the previous art residents at Rhizome had taken some very evocative photos of the kitchen…

Adong’s birthday bashes

On the 17th of each month, a Taiwanese guy called Adong invites anyone who’s interested to a party at his woody-hippy-commune place on the edge of Lashi.

Adong's recycled wood place

People bring food to share, sit around open fires on chairs made from huge recycled timber.

Anyone who’s had a birthday that month gets a small present and the pleasure of everyone else singing Happy Birthday.

Art previews

We went to an art preview in Shuhu where a French artist worked with materials directly on the land – a metal sheet impressed with the actual rocks from the top of the hill; a glass installation; huge sheets of paper pierced in contact with the land.

I drank some rather good French red wine and failed to understand the Artist’s statement. Can’t remember which came first…

Then there were the parties at Christmas and New Year, when Odile lent me something perhaps more fitting than my walking trousers, Berghous jacket and Tevas.

Then it snowed in Lijiang and there were snowball fights with the children.

Wet snow at Rhizome

Stacey came to see Bob, Bob left, and I spent some time with her on various outings, relishing the company. We went on a few walks – one in a blizzard up Elephant Hill…

New paving up Elephant Hill

Ancient graves in the forest

Snow storm approaching

Getting colder...

Stacey in the blizzard

And came across a few winter flowers.

Primula

Magnolia sp

And some surprisingly familiar ones from Stacey’s homeland:

Eucalyptus globulus

 

Acacia sp

In fact I perhaps spent more time than I should – I even took a few days out to show her my wonderful Shaxi… (andI’ve posted enough photos of that beautiful place).

But the fun couldn’t last, and it was – Back to the task at hand…

I was still exploring all options, but making slow progress on identifying which Naxi plants were important to them.

I spent hours at a local bookshop (many are used as free libraries) poring over a book of Naxi plants and Chinese pharmacology – in Chinese – writing down the Latin names. But what were these in Naxi? Were there pictographs of the plants?

I did find some pictographs, but translations indicated they were for more general plants such as “fir” or “oak” or to indicate a point as “poisonous”

Some plant and medicinal pictographs

I followed up a contact I had for a Naxi woman who works at the Dongba Cultural Museum; fluent English but very limited time. Through her I got to meet He Pinzheng, who has not only translated a large number of Dongba scripts into Chinese, but has published a simple dictionary of pictographs. He’s also an artist, using the pictographic symbols in a very modern style. But he knew nothing of the plants they use, and could give me no leads.

There was also an intriguing display in the Museum of pictographic script including the cover of The Book of Medicine – but I could not access the document itself, nor any translation:

Book of Medicine

Someone put me in touch with Robbie Hart, from the University of Wisconsin. He’s doing research up at Wenhai, the Lijiang Botanical Gardens – well, a field research station really – and he sent me a copy of the pictographs of plants that Joseph Rock had translated. But he was back in the States and not returning to Lijiang until early March.

What I needed was someone who had local botanical knowledge and could communicate in both Naxi and English.

I never found them.

I also heard that I was unlikely to make headway directly through the Dongba shaman as it’s a very male culture – the mere fact of being a woman would be a barrier to them sharing this knowledge. I don’t know if that’s true of not, but the lack of progress I was making was very real. And the whole point of this project was to identify those Naxi plants of value, and paint them on their paper.

Some of my first experiments with painting on the Dongba paper:

Meconopsis horridula

Hypericum bellum

Pharbitis purpurea detail

I was starting to doubt, again, that I was going to be able to produce works worthy of an exhibition. It wasn’t through lack of encouragement – both Odile and Mika really liked my work: it was the complete lack of progress I was making.

Perhaps if I had had a grant to study Naxi plants, through a recognised institution, things might have been different.

I was reminded of the obstacles I encountered when first in China on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship in 2009. No-one in the institutions would help me as they didn’t want to take responsibility if anything went wrong.

They don’t say that of course. But if I’d come through Kew Gardens, or Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, or Glasnevin… Well, I didn’t, and things were very tough.

Where to, now?

Towards the end of my 2-month residency Mika and Odile went on holiday to Vietnam. Being on the edge of a tourist city is wonderful if want to be out of the noise and bustle and close to the hills. I had come to Rhizome for lively discussions about art and networking with the artists’ community in Lijiang.

Sadly, I realised that that if that community existed, I was somehow unable to access it. There are individual artists working, and some ex-pats, but they seem to be unconnected. So here was I, also feeling once again the isolation of working on my own, and the frustration of not being able to achieve what I had set out to do.

At that time I was still working towards having an exhibition at Rhizome in March of my new works on Dongba paper, plus the ones I had done in Shaxi.

Then news from England pulled my focus away from my work, and I made the difficult decision to return home to deal with family affairs. When Odile and Mika returned from their holiday, we agreed to put the exhibition on hold until I was able to return.

That will depend very much on identifying a reliable source of information on Naxi plants. And being able to find – and paint – them.

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