Seventy-three-year old painter Zhang Zishen finds inspiration 500 meters below the earth's surface. The coal mine is a vital source of power for booming China but it is also a world of life and death for thousands of hard-working miners. Glaring lights from safety lamps pierce through darkness and smoky scents pervade the air. Rigid edges of skin surround gritty eyes of faces caked with coal.
For the veteran artist, these powerful images have triggered an extraordinary series of paintings that have made a strong impression in the Beijing art scene.
One visitor to the recent National Art Museum show was compelled to return to the exhibition 12 times and wrote "perhaps there will be more."
Maturity is often an artist's major asset, however Zhang said his age was initially a barrier to reaching his subjects.
"Directors at the colliery said I was too old to go underground, and my family members wouldn't allow me, either," Zhang chuckled.
"But I was determined, not afraid at all, even though my left arm was broken from a previous accident. And I didn't experience much difficulty as expected."
One of the most intriguing works in Zhang's 15-piece miners' series is "The Eighth Miner's Lamp," which measures a whopping 5.5 meters in length and 1.8 meters in height.
It is a portrait of seven coal miners just as they finish work and walk out of the pithead.
The leading figure holds a helmet in hand, the lamp atop shining through the darkness as the single source of light. The other six miners either stand or sit beside him, all overcome with pain and anger. The eighth miner, obviously, has lost his life and only had his helmet retrieved by his fellow workers. Thick brushes have endowed the painting with a heavy tone. It is difficult to tell exactly what has gripped the seven miners. Anguish, anger, helplessness, or perhaps it is a mixture of all.
Their black faces, ragged work clothes and smoke-soaked towels contrast sharply with the upright stature and grim expressions. Standing face to face with them and watching their eyes that are lightened against the dark background, one could almost feel the pain.
On the opposite wall is another large-format painting "Enjoy the Sunshine," depicting a group of coal miners bathing under the sunlight on a winter day.
Contrary to what is supposed of the miners' life that is overwhelmingly dark and harsh, this work shows a warm and relaxed aspect of their spare time. They are resting, smoking and chatting together. The broad smiles and leisurely expressions are contagious, radiating with warmth and hope.
The paintings of miners at the Huainan colliery in Anhui were completed between October 2005 to June 2006 and are the crystallization of 30 years of Zhang's first-hand experiences with the miners.
Seeing is believing
Zhang visited the colliery during the early 1970s, when China was still embroiled in the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), and was deeply impressed by the miners' hard work.
As a teacher of oil painting, he brought his students for sketching. "Since then I have always been concerned with these miners and their life. But the pity is that I couldn't afford enough time for further creation, not until coal mine accidents in China became serious enough," he said.
While China ranks as the world's second largest coal producer, the death toll from coal mine accidents makes up nearly 80 per cent of the world's total, according to the statistics from a Chinese coal mine website. In 2005 that number came close to 6,000, an average death of 15 per day. For Zhang, those figures cut him to the bone.
Passion and pain
Compared with his previous visits in the early 1970s, the working conditions in the coal mines have been improved with the help of machines, Zhang said.
However, according to Zhang's observation, miners still have to dig by themselves at some narrow and branch working areas, which imposes high strain on their labor.
After a day's toiling, miners would emerge from the pithead, covered in black coal dust. Their faces were exceptionally stern and statures firm.
The sight transfixed Zhang, who finally came up with the sculpture-like painting "The Eighth Miner's Lamp," he said.
"My painting has always been realistic. I would try to translate my discovery of the significant moments in life into brushwork."
As a contrast to "The Eighth Miner's Lamp," "Enjoy the Sunshine" adds nothing in relieving visitors of their emotional strain.
It was created incidentally, Zhang recalled, when Zhang caught sight of a group of miners spending their limited daytime upground before going down to the mines.
The encounter instantly filled the painter with inspirations and enriched his perceptions on the previous works.
"Think of that. Even after descending into the coal mines, miners still have to walk two hours in order to reach the working site. Then, they will spend at least 12 hours underground every day, without any exposure to the sunlight. For them, enjoying the sunshine is undoubtedly the happiest moment."
Zhang's miners' series have been recently published in an album titled "Zhang Zishen, the Eighth Miner's Lamp" by Changcheng Publishing House.
(China Daily August 14, 2006)