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Cyrano of the Canvas
Wang Yaohua began painting when a friend, who lacked talent but not resources, bought him some brushes and oils - provided the artist permit the friend to pass the work off as his own. The 52-year-old native of Liaoning Province recounts this and other colorful tales.

Liaoning native Wang Yaohua is a classic northerner: passionate, direct, and tempera-mental. The artist admits to this description without the least hesitation. "That's the personality of most northern Chinese, artists or not. It's simply in our blood," said the 52-year-old painter, who is currently based in Shanghai.

Wang, who cuts a rough and robust figure, confides that he finds local men "too polished and lily-livered. They never seem to lose their temper or fight for their dignity." But such is Wang's own character that these regional differences didn't stop him from moving to Shanghai.

He picked Shanghai, he says, because "unlike other cities in China, Shanghai has an influx of Western culture and therefore a variety of art styles flourish here."

So the artist sold his interior decoration business in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, and with the proceeds established his own studio on Taikang Road - the city's first "artistic street."

He remains resolutely confident about his move. "I told my friends that my success in the future would prove me right," he said.

His choice of location certainly seems propitious. The "artistic street" is a government-aided project aimed at attracting artists from different regions. Wang's two-story, 60-square-meter studio costs him 2,800 yuan (US$337) per month - remarkable, considering the downtown location and the fact that art celebrities Chen Yifei and Deke Erh also have properties on this strip. "This area is going to be very interesting," he says, adding, "the environment is inspiring in terms of my art, as well."

That art is filled with his personality - big canvases, passionate hues, and like most northern artists, his canvases are crammed with chaotic brushstrokes and daubs of color, a visual explosion of the artist's yearnings.

The story of how he came to be an artist is as dramatic as his can-vases. Born in Yingkou of Liaoning, Wang struck a deal with a good friend. In exchange for high-quality brushes, paints and paper, Wang would create paintings that his friend could pass off as his own.

Wang and his friend continued the charade for five years, before the boy's parents discovered the deception. The jig was up, but Wang found that he could not leave the art world.

After embarking on a course of study at the Luxun Fine Arts Academy in Sichuan Province and the Chinese Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Wang began making a name for himself. In 1986, the Liaoning government selected his work for an exhibition in Japan.

But when one of Wang's works was selected for the 7th National Art Exhibition, then abruptly with-drawn, the artist himself withdrew.

After forswearing exhibitions for life, he shut himself away for almost six months deep in the forests of the Changbai mountains in northeastern China, at an animal research center.

It proved a watershed for him: "In the forest, I was completely removed from material temptation like money and lust, which enabled me to think and study my works in a more-focused way," he says.

His time as a hermit over, Wang returned to society and started an interior and garden design firm with a few friends in 1992.

The company was successful and Wang grew wealthy, "but not a single day went by that I didn't think of my canvas and brush." In a rush of honesty, he says. "To be frank, I hate doing business with people. Sometimes I'd have to do something against my will just to please the clients. It made me wonder, 'What price is dignity?'"

Wang chose to retain his dignity and sold his interest in the company in exchange for an annual allowance of 50,000 yuan. "I had to leave Shenyang (capital of Liaoning), " he explains, "otherwise I wouldn't have been able to make a clean break."

He takes an innovative approach to his canvases, ink-wash and calligraphy, and has even used oils on rice paper for an interesting effect. "I'm very proud of this, my first solo exhibition in Shanghai," he says. "I really don't know if locals will like my style or not. Someone did very kindly suggest that I alter my style to cater to the tastes of the Shanghai people. But I insist on retaining my style, because I believe in my work. You might call it the stubbornness of a northern artist."

(eastday.com June 13, 2002)

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