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World-Renowned Chinese Artist Works to Preserve His Folk Art Roots

In Tongzhou District in the eastern suburbs of Beijing, a white house stands quietly among countless residential buildings. The courtyard is decorated with sculptures of "Mother and Child," dragons and Buddhas of different sizes. All of them are works of its owner -- Han Meilin, 65, the prolific Chinese artist whose works range from colossal urban sculptures, including the Five-Dragon Clock Tower in Atlanta in the United States, to graphic designs such as the red phoenix logo for Air China, the major Chinese airlines.

This is the Han Meilin Art Studio. Set up in 1989, it is the first art studio in China named after an artist, and the only one of such kind under the Chinese Artists Association.

The exhibition halls of the five-storied Han Meilin Art Studio are filled with works of fine art by Han and his assistants and students. The works range from Chinese painting, calligraphy, sculpture, pottery, wood carving to bronze weaponry, paper cutting and cloth tigers. Over 3,000 of them have just come back from the recent one-man Han Meilin exhibit held from December 31, 2001 to January 13 at the China National Museum of Fine Arts -- an exhibit that attracted more than 50,000 visitors from the mainland and the United States, Japan, India and Denmark as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

"It was beyond all my expectations to have so many attend the exhibit," said Han as he talked recently with four reporters from china.org.cn. After a tour of the studio itself, the reporters were received by Han around an exquisitely wood-carved table that Han designed himself in a meeting room behind his studio.

Han said he attributes his success to his firm understanding of his roots as a contemporary artist in the Chinese folk art tradition.

"Iím confident of the road I choose. Iím always following the way of folk arts, and I will integrate that with contemporary concepts," he said.

According to Hanís view -- science and technology, democracy, legal system and religion can all be globalized, but not art. Art must have its unique identity, he said, which for a Chinese artist includes roots in the Chinese nation.

In that regard, Han Meilin deplored the works of those artists who turn their backs on their roots, especially those who have just returned from years of study in foreign countries to start issuing orders right and left without any real analysis.

"This is like nothing but cutting nerves of the Chinese people with scissors," Han said, "I worry that Chinese folk art may die out in our generation or that of our descendants."

To help prevent this, Han said he will take the fight against influence that disregard or demean Chinese folk art at the annual conference of the Chinese Peopleís Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which will be held in March. Han is a member of CPPCC because of his great achievements in art.

During the interview, Han Meilin showed the reporters a photograph of the hall of the former Central Academy of Arts and Design, from which he graduated in 1960. The academy merged into Tsinghua University in 1999. The hall, bright and new, is modern with sculptures of western style, but with nothing of Chinese.

"The day when the arts will all be in accord with one another will be the doomsday of art," Han said.

Any kind of art must have its "root," Han said. Art firmly rooted can prosper daily while that with no root will pass, unable to stand the test of time. With that root thoroughly in heart, Han is able to express his will freely in many kinds of artistic forms.

"Art is used to convey your feelings to audiences. Which kind of art is used depends on what you try to convey," Han said.

On one wall of his meeting room is a calligraphy in which Han Meilin tells the story of the Chinese fight against Japanese invasion. "I showed it to Japanese visitors when they came, and they could say nothing," Han said in the firm tones of one who understands the gravity of battle to protect oneís nation.

For Han, merging modern ideas into folk arts is the correct path. Most of his paintings and sculptures both have inherited traditional Chinese art features and have absorbed the quintessence of Western art. In employing Chinese and foreign styles, Han focuses on Chinese. Between ancient and modern, he selects modern. In source and course of art, he stresses source.

Han Meilin also finds his roots in the rich and colorful life of common people. For more than 20 years, he has been leading trips to the countryside. On his most recent tour last May, Han started a mini-bus tour from Beijing accompanied by more than 20 young people. In the next seven months, they covered over 30,000 km (about 18,641 miles). What emerges from this contact is Hanís versatile work that combines national features with modern characteristics, integrating fine art with design.

"We must keep in touch with real life if we want to maintain a high cultural level," said Han, who has been known to donate schoolbags and supplies to poor children in rural areas. In some places, he has helped the local government set up Hope Project schools. His assistance also has extended to local factories engaging in art, and not just financially -- Han also has designed for them, which always has helped sustain their production.

Through his visits to these countryside kilns, Han and his assistants helped salvage a lot of traditional craftsmanship as they themselves came to understand the most special features of folk art. The Han Meilin art studio visitors can see this in the many bowls and bottles baked on the premises. Some seem to be works-in-progress while some others are of high artistic level.

In recent years, Han started his sculpture series of "Mother and Child," several of which stand in his courtyard. Each mother is slender and elegant, and the child, chubby and naÔve. The contrast incisively and vividly depicts the sincerest love on the earth.

"It is just because I experienced too many losses and sufferings that I cherish love today," Han Meilin said. Known to have suffered a hard childhood and to have faced extreme difficulties during "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the artist believes one can benefit much from acting and thinking like a child. In fact, Han said he always keeps a mind of a child which helps feed the naivety, optimism, courage and love in his works -- all part of his attitude toward life.

For example, last year when Han Meilin was working with porcelain in Yuzhou, an impoverished town in Henan Province, he learned his wife was going to make an unexpected visit. As a gift for her on the occasion, Han Meilin stayed up all night doing small paintings of animal in different forms. At the airport, his wife received the 100th painting and a rose.

As early as in 1980, Han Meilinís art was exhibited in shows in the United States in 21 cities, including New York and Boston. He was given the key to the city of San Diego as an honorary citizen. Manhattan in New York declared October 1, 1980 as the "Han Meilin Day." During his stay in the United States, he was also invited to give speeches at Harvard and Yale universities.

In 1983, six of Han Meilinís works were selected to be printed on Christmas cards issued by the United Nations. Since 1989, he has held one-man art show in over 20 countries. Today in the Century Park of Atlanta on permanent display is his 10-meter-high granite and cast copper sculpture -- the Five-Dragon Clock Tower designed by Han Meilin for the 26th Olympic Games held in the city in 1996.

Han also has completed several colossal urban sculptures for Dalian, Shenzhen, Jinan and some other cities of China. The "Group Tigers" he created for Dalian in northeast Chinaís Liaoning Province in 1989 have become a tour destination of the city. The six granite sculptured tigers are 42 meters in total length and 7 meters in height. They weigh 4,800 tons. On one of them, over 100 children can stand up at the same time.

(China.org.cn by Li Jinhui February 7, 2002)


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