Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Demonstration of Chinese Brush Calligraphy

I had an unexpectedly pleasant Sunday.  I was expecting it to rain and sleet most of today while driving, but the nasty weather held off until I got back home.  That didn't prevent my leather shoes and pants from getting soaked, and me from getting frozen.

I went to the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill because they were having an exhibit reception for a collection of Asian art (mostly Japanese and Chinese).  I didn't actually go because of the art exhibit, but I went because Jinxiu "Alice" Zhao was demonstrating Chinese brush calligraphy and painting, and Li-Ling Hsaio was playing the zheng, or Chinese zither.

I got there late, so I only heard one song by Professor Hsaio which she described as detailing the rape of a small village, which did not exactly improve my mood on the weather.  After that, Prof. Zhao sat at a small table and began to describe Chinese brush painting.  I've always liked the way that type of art looks: somewhat minimal with black ink on white rice paper and sparse coloring, but structured and flowing.  She began showing the different types of brushes used and briefly described the different weights of paper she uses along with her inks and chi related to painting.  Then, Prof. Zhao talked about the 5 main calligraphy categories.  "There are many styles, but most of them fall into the five categories."  With a smile, she said she was going to demonstrate the five different calligraphy styles by drawing the character for rain in each style which drew appreciable chuckles from the audience, most of whom were in slickers or mackintoshes.

To my untrained eye, the first four characters looked roughly the same.  The last character which was in a cursive type, was definitely different, although she pointed out that it's somewhat difficult to read that type of calligraphy.  And with that she began doing her stuff.

Her first drawing was of bamboo stalks with leaves.  Dipping her brush into water, she swirled the tip onto a splotch of ink in an inkstone until the consistency satisfied her, and then began by painting the stalks.  To these she added delicate leaves in a lighter ink by a light flicking motion with the brush.  When it was finished, she wrote several characters on the top which she said described the "noble character" of the bamboo.  And to put her mark on it, she took a small jade stamp, dipped it into red ink, and firmly pressed it onto the paper.

Her next painting was of a pine branch.  Pine, she said, is indicative of longevity, and is important to artists because of this, but I also think she was painting it for us since North Carolina is well-known for its pine trees and everyone there could relate to the image of a pine.  She drew the main branch with limbs jutting out of it, and added tiny, sharp needles to each small limb.  While waiting for it to dry, she wrote a poem underneath the painting describing moolight on a floor looking like frost.  When the painting had dried, she started painting bark on the limb.  This required a drier ink, she said, and pointed out to us the importance of keeping the brushes slightly wet so that the bristles come to a taper, and that larger brushes absorb more ink.  With the pine branch finished, she pulled a tray of watercolors closer to her and used another brush to mix several colors and ink together to get the correct green shade of the pine needles, and began coloring the needles on her painting.  Her stamp and signature were added and concluded the simple and beautiful painting.

Watching her paint and draw calligraphy was incredible and also prodded me into realizing how little I know about Eastern art.  Thankfully I had a good view of Prof. Zhao, so I could see the way she mixed her ink and drew.  But occasionally the view was interrupted by some simpering man in his 50's who reeked of old lady perfume, who couldn't be bothered to say "Excuse me," when he leaned in front of me and nearly knocked me over.  I was also gravely concerned that he was going to wet his pants when he saw the finished paintings.  But I guess each of us has a different way of expressing appreciation of art.

With her last painting finished, the demonstration ended but my mother introduced me to her.  Apparently she had one of my siblings as a student for a class, so there's no telling what stories Professor Zhao has heard about me: "Oh, my brother would like doing this calligraphy, professor but he hasn't mastered fingerpainting yet." "Aw, that's too cute! How old is your brother?" "In his mid-20's."
She referred to me as didi, but I wasn't sure if this was because my mother said I was the eldest or the youngest of my siblings.  It was nice meeting her, and I wanted to ask her so many questions about her paintings and training, her selection of inks, and what types of brushes she prefers.  I also wanted to ask her what sort of tea she likes and where she buys it along with teaware.  But, maybe it's best I didn't actually ask her about the tea.  I probably would've overwhelmed her with questions.  

Actually meeting her was short since I had to get back on the road because of the heavy rain which was supposed to turn to sleet and then snow.  On the way out of Chapel Hill I stopped by A Southern Season and noticed that they actually had gaiwans!  One highly decorative one was something I'd probably use for company, but was a little bit pricey at $14, and extremely large at 7 ounces.  I didn't consider buying it, because it was too large to actually fit into my palm and pour, and I do have pretty big hands.  The other gaiwan I spied was a simple white one that was a little bit smaller at 4 ounces, but was expensive at close to $30!  They also had a white porcelain gongfu cha set for $75 which was well beyond my price range and tastes.  I browsed the tea section and settled on "Tippy Yunnan" which was on sale.  Happy with my purchase, I stepped out of the store and braved the weather to the car to head home.

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