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Wu Changjiang draws a sketch in a Tibetan tent, in Zekog county, Qinghai province. Photos provided to China Daily
Artist Wu Changjiang takes more than just inspiration from his journeys through Tibetan areas. Lin Shujuan finds out more.
Artist Wu Changjiang has perhaps the world's largest studio - the vast expanse of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau.
Nearly every print, watercolor and sketch Wu has created since 1980 has been completed in a Tibetan herder's tent, in the middle of a local market or on the sidelines of horse races.
"In my eyes, the Tibetan herders are the most beautiful humans on Earth," says the 58-year-old artist, who has set foot in every corner of the plateau over the past three decades.
"I believe Mother Nature must have made Tibetan herders the prototype for human beings. She has cast them with a strong physique to endure the harshest living conditions, endowed them with a happy-go-lucky nature, and blessed them with the wisdom to enjoy and celebrate life - even when it's hard."
The artist has made it his life mission to introduce these people to the outside world, he says.
It was in 1980 when he was a sophomore print major at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts that he decided to make his first journey to Tibetan areas.
It has been a tradition for Chinese artists to visit and sketch Tibet since the early 20th century, when such Western influences as Realism started to permeate Chinese fine arts.
The late artist Wu Zuoren (1908-97) was a pioneer of this convention.
His sketch books from his time in Tibet in the 1940s inspired many followers, including Dong Xiwen, Wu Guanzhong, Pan Shixun and Chen Danqing. The books are stored in the China Central Academy of Fine Arts' library.
Wu visited Chen Danqing, who was then a postgraduate student at CCAFA, to see his sketches of Tibet.
"That glimpse made me more excited than ever," Wu recalls.
Wu had longed to create works portraying the busy coastal life of his hometown, Tianjin's Hangu - harbors, fishermen and sailors.
But he says he'd never felt such potent passion until he arrived in Tibet.
"That trip changed my life," Wu says.
"I fell in love with the landscape and people."
He recalls waking one morning to a snowy wonderland, the whiteness of which was broken only by a tent and several black yaks. He says he was completely enamored by the strongest contrast between the two colors he'd ever seen.
The artist found Tibetans to be as beautiful as the land they inhabit. Their lives are so different that he wonders if they came from another world, he says.
Wu returned from Tibet with a full heart but virtually empty-handed.
"I'd never struggled so much with the limitations of my skills to paint what I saw," he says.
So, Wu returned to Tibet and stayed for two months to complete his capstone works for graduation the following year.
It wasn't easy for painters from other places to work on the plateau then. Transportation was limited, and the Tibetans were virtually sealed off from the outside.
Natural challenges, such as thin air, fierce winds and icy temperatures, were complemented by such interpersonal challenges as language barriers and cultural differences.
But Wu's greatest challenge was posed by the bristling mastiffs every Tibetan nomad kept outside his tent.
He recalls once spending hours yelling to a herder a few hundred meters away because he was afraid to get too close to the guard dog. Finally, he was able to get close enough to finish his painting.
This trip proved productive. He created a series of prints depicting Tibetan lifestyles and landscapes. Some of these, such as Tibetan Woman and Milking the Cow, have won several national and international awards.
It enabled him to make enough of a name for himself that he could have continued to create from the comfort of his studio.
But he has continued returning to Tibetan areas.
Wu's former colleague and CCAFA professor Song Xiaoxia recalls joining Wu for a bumpy ride from Qinghai's capital Xining to the province's Yushu Tibetan autonomous prefecture in 1997.
Their bus broke down halfway as dusk fell. They had to hitch rides from passing trucks.
"As I saw him fumble in the truck, with his painting supplies on his back and his easel buried in his chest, I realized he'd been on dozens of such rough trips," Song recalls.
"I had no idea he'd continue taking these journeys for the following 15 years."
Wu has persisted in making the trips, even after becoming extremely busy as the managing director of the China Artists Association in 2007.
He says it's the Tibetan people, especially the nomads, who create the magnetism that keeps pulling him to the area. He believes they are "heroes" who rule "the roof of the world".
His portraits show Tibetan herders as glorious statues with strong physiques, colorful attire and rotund faces. They express an assertiveness that resembles that of a triumphant military commander.
Wu says they display the virtues of diligence, courage, warm-heartedness and hospitality. "Some of these (qualities) are hard to find in today's commercialized world," he says.
Wu personally aspires to these characteristics, he says. "I think that's part of the reason I love to be there and paint the people," he says.
But Wu says Tibetans are changing, as urbanization and commercialization make inroads into their society.
More of his subjects wear athletic shoes, he says, so he now brings traditional Tibetan boots with him. It's increasingly commonplace for them to snap photos of his paintings of them with their mobile phones.
But while Wu laments the disappearance of some traditions and lifestyles, he says the Tibetans have taught him to view whatever happens in a positive light.
The essence of the virtues that draw him to Tibetan areas remain intact - even in the most urban locales, he says.
For example, many Tibetans have swapped their horses for motorcycles.
"But you instantly know they're Tibetans when you see them navigating the rutted roads," Wu says.
"They don't just drive motorcycles - they make them gallop."
Artist Pan Shixun, who has visited Tibetan areas since the 1960s and visited Ngari last year at age 80, says: "Every trip is a spiritual recharge for Wu and me."
Wu agrees. "My studio is wherever the Tibetan herders are."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unfinished Portrait of a Young Man, a painting Wu failed to finish when the man had to leave.
Slaughtering a Lamb (1982).
(China Daily 12/06/2012 page20)