Wang Kun is a
renowned oil painter born in western Chinas Jilin province in
1970, he contracted polio at a young age resulting in mobilty issues
due to weakness in his legs. In recent years, his work has been exhibited
internationally and hes won numerous awards.
For the artist, time is like a paint brush and life itself places
layers of color on the canvas, concealing some of our memories.
One area of the painting would be of Wang as a toddler who contracted
polio, turning a mischievous boy into a listless one who lay in bed
all day. He read picture books like The Red Lantern and Romance of
the Three Kingdoms to pass the time, savoring their vivid characters,
animals and flowers.
One day, he used his grandfathers thin cigarette paper to cover
a page and trace a character. The more he drew, the better he became.
During Chinese New Year, he would draw all the lucky symbols, from
lotus flowers to a chubby boy holding a red carp.
When Wang was old enough for formal education, many schools wouldnt
accept him because of his disability. It wasnt until he was
eight that he was finally enrolled, but only after his father brought
his paintings to the headmaster to convince him of his sons
In his spare time, Wang continued to draw. One of his fathers
associates who studied drawing at a community art center began to
teach the young man how to draw and how to use color. Since they didnt
have plaster models to use, the teacher carved models out of mud.
Then they brushed it with a white substance to make it resemble plaster.
Whenever his parents saved up some money, they took Wang to see doctors
to determine if anything could be done to help their child become
ambulatory. After numerous appointments and various medications, the
young man was finally able to use crutches to walk. After he finished
studying drawing with his first teacher, he attended Jilin College
of the Arts in Changchun in 1986. With room and board, tuition was
roughly $325 for a one-month crash course, about 10 months worth
of his parents salaries.
Wang spent three years learning Chinese painting and calligraphy.
He expected to be accepted into the Central Academy of Fine Arts in
Beijing and major in interior design. Although his scores were high
enough, he was rejected because of his disability by several schools.
Since no school would take him, he remained at home in Jilin, drawing.
There were many, lonely days. His tape recorder played only two songs.
When he was feeling helpless and depressed, he would listen to A Bings
recording of The Moon Mirrored in Erquan. When he felt
calm and happy, he listened to Richard Kerry Friedmans song,
Destiny. In these moments, he felt like an eagle ready
He was also determined to move beyond traditional Chinese painting,
which focuses on nature or the mood, and is not used to express deep
feelings. Since I felt helpless with my body, I wanted to find
something to help release my frustrations, said Wang. So he
switched to the colorful and expressive medium of oil paint.
Since his home in Jilin was too small for Wang to paint on large canvases,
his dad asked a friend to help build a small studio next to the familys
home. They also made a portable lamp out of an old recycled steel
pipe so Wang could sketch at night. It was in his studio that the
artist would paint until two in the morning, which has since become
He was grateful to have a place to work, yet these were still difficult
times. Harsh words about him filtered through his studio walls. Not
only would he be unable to take care of his parents, some people gossiped
loudly, he had spent all of his parents hard earned money on
Some suggested that a simple table would have been good enough for
him to do traditional Chinese painting and that the Western style
oil painting, which required hours of standing in front of a large
canvas, was too challenging for someone with polio. Wangs muscles
had atrophied, so it was hard for him to keep his center of gravity.
Every three or four days, his armpits would swell and bleed from leaning
against his crutches while drawing. When his weakened body could no
longer stand, he would fall to the ground.
He spent his savings of roughly $163 on a new set of plaster models.
To keep up with the art world, he subscribed to leading national art
magazines. He also ordered supplies from fine art publishing houses
His first oil painting was from his heart: There was not one intact
object in the painting; the legs of the plaster model were broken,
the ears were incomplete and the cup was cracked. During this period,
Wang had nothing but a dream, a pile of paintings and yet he refused
to give up. To remind him of his vision, he deliberately added sheet
music from one of his favorite songs, Destiny, in the
lower left corner of the painting.
In 1990 his work, Harvest from the Black Soil, was featured
in the Chinese magazine Art Grand. With just over $5 as his royalty,
the boy who had never cried over his illness was finally moved to
tears over his modest success. His work began to appear in a variety
of publications. Although he was a fledging artist, the feeling he
conveyed through his brush strokes was beginning to reflect a growing
One day, a friend who was a professional painter visited him and made
a powerful suggestion: You have to leave, otherwise youll
bury your talent here. His friend spoke of Yuanmingyuan Art
Village, a place where artists in Beijing were free to explore their
creative expression. The idea excited Wang. However, he didnt
follow the advice at that time. It was a completely different impetus
that would eventually inspire him to leave home:
In the winter of 1993, Wang saw an advertisement for painters in Beijing.
He mailed a photograph of one of his pieces and a cover letter of
introduction. Two weeks later, he received a reply. The company informed
him that his talent was exceptional, and that they would give him
a place to make and sell art reproductions, and also find him a place
Wang remembers the first time he came to town. I am finally
here in Beijing, he thought. This was back in 1994 when he was
just 24 and eager to make his mark on the world.
At the Beijing Railway Station, waves of weary people exited its doors
moving hastily like worker bees, their eyes filled with the hope of
finding opportunity in Chinas capital city.
None of the people rushing past him knew how far he had come, nor
how much he had struggled to get to where he was. Using crutches to
hold up his thin frame, he appeared lost amid the steady tide of commuters.
He wore a military overcoat and carried a drawing board and box. His
hand clutched a piece of paper with the address of his new job at
a reproduction house.
During the first two months, his paintings sold slowly. He had to
pay rent and money was tight. Most of the time, his meals consisted
of instant noodles. For a change, he would eat cucumber spread with
soybean paste. With a heavy workload and substandard nutrition, he
was depleted and could not stand for long. He once experienced cold
sweats and collapsed.
Still Wang worked every day. His pieces became among the best and
his pay rose considerably. But he was painting reproductions of others
work, and Wang felt his dream was wilting from this tiresome job.
Overall, it was a frustrating period for the young artist from Jilin.
Outside the confines of his restricted world, however, local art communities,
various salons and art exhibitions were booming in Beijing. Artists
shared new art styles, fashionable theories and technology. Encouraged,
Wang knew it was time for a change.
By early autumn, as the amber leaves of the Gingko trees blanketed
Beijing, the artist resolved to leave his job. He needed a new beginning
in order to follow his passion, so he moved to the Yuanmingyuan Artist
Village. Despite the high rent and cost of art supplies, he painted
day and night, whenever inspiration struck.
At that time, there was a growing gap between rich and poor village
artists. Wang disdained commercial art and it took a long time for
his remarkable anti-commercial works to be fully appreciated. The
most expensive of his paintings was of a Qing Dynasty princess, which
sold for about $250. But he was still often short of money to pay
for his living expenses, so he sometimes sold his paintings for as
low as $7 to dealers. Yet he remained singularly driven and utterly
devoted to his work. His physical challenges continued to plague him.
Life was not easy, especially during the winter months when he struggled
to walk on crutches along the snowy, slippery roads.
Within the village, a small group of classical realism artists from
all over the country had come together, sharing emotions and ideas
about art, just as ordinary people talk about daily necessities. They
would gather to drink wine and eat, paint autumn leaves or pick peaches
in Pinggu. They would pick Wang up at his home, carry him out and
put him on the back seat of a bike and head out together.
In those days, time was like fire and Wang was lit. His painting techniques
and mode of thinking evolved. Gazing at his work, he reflected, I
see myself, my crutches aside, jumping in a sunny field...
By 1995, the artists oil paintings were finally hanging in a
professional art gallery. That same year, during the Melbourne Art
Fair in Australia, an Australian collector purchased one of his pieces
and went on to acquire several works by Wang.
Wangs paintings first hung in a corner of a gallery and then
were later displayed in the main hall. After working with the Rong
Bao Zhai gallery in Beijing and then a British art company, the artist
decided to become his own agent, focusing mainly on developing overseas
In the past, he loved oil painting because of its vivid colors. But
these days he pays more attention to the tone of an entire piece and
the message it conveys. Rembrandt is his favorite artist. He admires
the 17th century Dutch artist because he didnt paint for money
alone, and showed compassion and empathy for those less fortunate.
Today, Wang believes oil painting is about influencing people.
Life themes remain the artists favorite subjects. His inspiration
for painting Chinese women is based on their being the creators
and representation of life. He creates backgrounds with rough
wood-like textures that contrast sharply with the smooth, delicate
skin of a woman, making his paintings strikingly different from the
more monotonous, neoclassical style. His recent pieces have begun
to incorporate wild, natural landscapes, representing the deeper feelings
of humanity, such as loneliness and persistence.
To this day, Wang never hides his passion or his uniqueness. He is
still that boy of long ago with dark shining eyes, leaning into the
windows of art supply stores, ever persistent, ever longing.
by Feng Huan
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive
editorial exchange between China
Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY
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