Art Sets Us Free

Title: Zhenglu Lin Art-A Practice of creating something from nothing. Image a four legged stool spattered with paing sits atop a hillside overlooking a village..


We would never have thought to look for the town of Shuangxi on a map if it were not the home of the International Art Education Center for the Disabled. What kind of resources allowed the Center to use the terms International and Disabled? What beliefs does its founder, Zhenglu Lin, hold? It was with these questions in mind that we set off for Shuangxi Town, Pingnan County, in the city of Ningde in China’s Fujian Province.

Three Lives Changed

At the Center, we met three people with disabilities whose lives were changed through the Center’s art program: Fawang Yang, Meilan Xue, and Minghui Shen.

Fawang Yang is well known by local government leaders and the China Disabled Person’s Federation (CDPF). His paralyzed right hand made it impossible for him to do farm work; with no parents or a home, he was forced to survive by begging in the streets. When he was unable to scrounge enough to get by, he would seek help at various local government organizations.

The local CDPF brought Yang to the Center to learn to paint. Gradually, with the encouragement of Lin, Yang opened his heart to paint the world that he sees.

He paints familiar things in his life: mountains, water and trees. The more he paints, the more he finds his own style. In a painting titled “Life Flower Mountain,” he depicts the mountain as flat and green and decorated with pink flowers. One flower occupies half the canvas, representing a culmination of all the flowers on the mountain as seen through his eyes. The piece reflects a contemporary, post-Impressionist style. His art is surprising to those who generally regard painting as an upper-class activity.

In as quickly as five months though, Yang is earning between $600-$750 per month through online sales of his paintings. He gave some of his works to local leaders as gifts and proudly told them: “I will not come back for money anymore!”

Image Left: Meilan Xue holding painting of teacher who stands next to her with a backdrop of colorful still life paingings. Image Right Oil Portrait of Zhenglu LIn looking his shoulder.
Meilan Xue, who is part of the Center’s first group of students, saw her seemingly impossible

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life change for the better. When she was only 20 years old, a stroke impaired Xue’s language capabilities, causing memory decline, leaving her right hand and left leg paralyzed, and blind in one eye. For nearly a decade she avoided going out, preferring to stay in her room where she killed time by sketching day after day.

She heard about the Center and made her way there with the help of her mother. Since enrolling, Xue has completed one painting after another, and her work gets better and better. The horrors of the past ten years have become more bearable for her. Painting taught her to listen to her own peaceful heart. Books, oil lamps, red candles, old chairs, sewing baskets—all of these objects speak their stories under her brush and are reminiscent of China’s lovely rural traditions. Her paintings are popular online, having earned her $600—the first income she’s earned since her fateful stroke ten years ago.

Xue’s physical health has progressed remarkably since her time at the Center. She can now walk without assistance, her arm is stronger, and she is able to speak in complete sentences. This transformation has not only brought her family happiness, but also allows them to feel hopeful for her bright future.

Minghui Shen joined the Center around the same time as Yang. At three feet, eight inches tall, Shen is a dwarf, and he used to make a living by selling toy balloons in the streets. To solicit business, he’d dress up as a clown and use his dwarfism to entertain passengers and customers. One week after Shen started learning how to paint, he devised his own technique of Pointillism, a 19th century method of painting. In Shen’s paintings, the cross, the cottage, and large tracts of rice fields are all expressed as thick bright colored dots. Pointillism has been sought after by some in the art world due to its hint of a more primitive style. Lin plans on organizing a personal exhibition for Shen as his works have a theme.

From painting, Shen learned how to create something from nothing. More importantly, he’s learned to understand life and to be grateful. He is always ready to help fellow students. Sometimes he helps carry frames; sometimes he sits as a model for other painters. Since he began earning income from his paintings, he’s declined any government assistance, preferring instead to give that opportunity to others in need. Art has made Shen a giant of a man.

Since the Center was founded, the local CDPF has helped more than 30 individuals with disabilities learn to paint in a month-long boot camp. CDPF provided the students with food, lodging and compensation. The students competed with each other to create their own distinctive paintings. This competition resulted in many high-quality paintings, which were displayed in a special exhibition area in the Center. Yang, Xue and Shen became artists-in-residence due to their excellence and Expressing Individuality through clearly defined styles.

Art When students with little experience in painting discuss Lin’s teaching methods, they unanimously agree with his motto: “Putting colors on the canvas will not cause any damage, right? Then, just do it.”

Although identified as “International Disabled,” the Center is open to everyone and provides free supplies, such as frames, brushes and paints. Many white-collar workers from big cities are lured to the Center’s 10,764 square feet of space with its wall-to-wall easels. Some fly in from the US and go directly to the center from the airport. One couple came from Shanghai to learn how to paint, with a six-month old baby in one parent’s arm and a paint brush in the other. No matter who comes, everyone is excited to be there.

Lin firmly believes “Everyone is an artist. Everyone can paint. It is an innate ability similar to eating and running.” In China, most learn about painting techniques and standards in school but never experience painting itself. Lin’s method is different: he never gives demonstrations, nor does he teach technique. Instead, he encourages his students to practice boldly and independently from the very beginning in order to, “let people who have never touched brushes be brave enough to paint.”

“Try it!” he insists. “You need to break down your psychological barriers first. You are successful once you put something on the canvas. No need to debate about it. Everyone has the potential. You are an artist when sitting in front of the easel.” Lin understands the importance of encouragement, adding, “It makes one believe in his or her potential.” Psychology also plays a key role in his teaching philosophy, especially with new students who’ve had little or no training in painting.


Students at easels painting in the workshop with a back drop of walls of colorful paintings.

After students independently paint two or three pieces, Lin starts to make recommendations such as, “Slightly brighten up the junction sites.” Junction does not only mean the edges as in a traditional painting, but includes any changes to the shapes, spaces and brightness. “Junction is always slightly brightened up relative to a certain area. With guidance, the naked eyes will be able to distinguish that.” This type of analysis and mastery of light has been endorsed by an art critic because it blends traditional art methods with respect for the students’ artistic visions and expression, all while maximizing their individuality. This is the reason students with no basic training have the courage to paint.

Lin’s model of teaching painting for free to students is reminiscent of Dafen Village in the city of Shenzhen. Dafen was transformed from a poor, tiny village to a famous oil painting workshop, known first for reproducing masterpieces, and more recently for encouraging original art.

Lin’s model, however, differentiates from Dafen by emphasizing original artwork inspired by students’ daily observations. “If we have no feelings toward the things around us, it is useless to simply copy masterpieces,” he asserts. Hence, all the artwork hanging at the Center depicts objects from the surrounding environment, such as bottles, fields and cottages. “These paintings train your ability to observe and generalize the world,” he says.

Lin’s Center also encourages humanistic ideals by “blending those who are disabled with those who are not disabled.” He does not separate them into special areas; everyone is treated equally at the Center. During our visit, an able-bodied student from Beijing was discussing painting tips with Shen, and their topics even included whether to paint breasts on a woman. Says Lin: “Normally the non-disabled would have few things in common with those who are disabled, such as Shen and Yang. But here, we communicate because of painting, which results in a type of blending.”

Local governments generously support Lin’s work. Shuangxi’s Town government invested $448,000 to help provide the space and painting supplies. Lin frequently shares student updates and progress on various projects on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media network. The government staff frequently “likes” and “shares” Lin’s updates. They see that Lin’s work will not only help the vulnerable lower class, but also stimulate the local tourism industry. According to the government, “Shuangxi has abundant tourism resources. The Center can endow Shuangxi’s tourism with cultural connotations, expand tourism and enhance the education of local villagers.”

Painting Awakens Old Villages

In Lin’s opinion, it is unwise to relocate villagers in order to preserve old villages for the sake of tourism. “It is more precious to keep the local residents than to keep historic walls, as the former keeps the traditional ecology vivid. It will evoke a different emotion when you hear the resident pointing out that the stone seat at his front door was passed down by his ancestors.” In fact, it is because of the reciprocal nature of its relationship with tourism that Lin boldly labels the Center as International.

Months before the Center was founded, Lin brought his project to Jixia Village. On one hand, he taught villagers how to paint for free while helping to preserve the old village, while on the other hand, he explored more resources for local tourism. Pingnan County, where Shuangxi and Jixia are located, has abundant resources for tourism. It has two 5A ranked resorts, as well as the natural and man-made areas with waterfalls, bridges and rocks. Importantly, Jixia has kept its traditional human ecology. Nearly 99 percent of the villagers carry the surname of Gan. The village dates back more than 570 years to the Ming dynasty. A beautiful river flows around the village, with a traditional covered bridge providing a peaceful place for villagers to pray and rest. Many houses are 300 years old. Lin introduced one of them by saying that, “The house is older than the US.”

Pingnan is home to around 30 old villages, some of them are in decline because villagers have moved to the cities to make money. The houses are collapsing, and the human ecology is disappearing. How to revive these old villages? Lin believes that the solution lies in the protective development of a creative cultural industry, and the first step is to awaken the villagers to this possibility.

There are also villagers with disabilities in Jixia. Lin introduced us to a villager named Qiaoying Gan who was painting at the time. Gan spends more than $100 per month to control a chronic disease. For that reason, she lost both her job and her marriage. But she is high-spirited and smiles everyday. After she successfully sold her art, she donated 200 yuan ($30.00) to a boy with leukemia from another village. During our visit, Lin taught Gan to link her WeChat account with her bank account; now she can sell her paintings online by herself.

An independent critic, Meixin Cheng considers Lin’s method very smart. “Transfusion-style of protection is not enough for old villages. Tourism and precision marketing are also needed. To awaken the old village is to awaken the villagers: to optimize their creativity. Coupled with the Internet business model, villagers can start their own businesses by selling paintings and farm products in the future. This is the most sustainable way to support the protection of old villages.”

Spring Breeze’s Ying Li chats with Zhenglu Lin

Ying Li: The project, “Everyone is an Artist,” is being implemented in Shuangxi under the name of “International Disabled.” What drove this decision?

Zhenglu Lin:  I think the Cultural Creativity Industry will surely bring improvements. I chose to direct my projects toward people who are disadvantaged in a place that is not so advanced. The reason it is called the International Art Education Center for the Disabled is because those who are disabled are at the bottom of society, and they carry a deep sense of self-denial. If “Disabled” is not in the name, those who are disabled would not have the courage to come. Only by seeing the benefits, would they think of giving it a try. The title implies some social psychology of encouragement, to let those who are disabled believe in their potential and to come here and learn, and to let them experience hope. But we would not artificially separate them from the able-bodied people once they are inside the center.

Ying:  Do you see any differences in terms of visual expression when comparing artwork by those with disabilities and those without disabilities?

Zhenglu:  This type of comparison is inconsiderate. We encourage everybody to establish his or her own style. The differences that you suggest are actually differences of individuality. Here we want everyone to bloom like a flower. As long as you bloom, you are spectacular.

Ying:  Wouldn’t that individuality bear the life experience of a person with a disability? Lin: People with disabilities have similar life experiences as able-bodied people, except that maybe the able-bodied look forward to success more than simply experiencing life. If the able-bodied always paint to resemble masterpieces, it could make success harder to achieve. We have to let everyone experience painting independently. Sometimes people with disabilities paint better than the able-bodied because they have purer goals. An able-bodied person could have very good talent, but forget about painting when buried in busy, daily life back in the city. The one who puts more love and persistence into painting will surely paint better.

Ying:  Nearly 100 people with disabilities participated in your art project, but why have only a few persisted and stayed in this field?

Zhenglu:  Learning to paint does not mean you have to use painting to make money. It is more important to recognize one’s life potential through art. We should not regard art as a direct transaction. Take Fawang Yang as an example. He was changed by art at the Center. When he leaves the Center, the other parts of his identity would be induced to change as well. This is a self-approval process. Through self-approval, he will not give up on himself and would be stronger in other ways. This self-approval makes him believe in himself, and believe that he can create miracles out of nothing. This is very important.

Ying:  Yang earns quite a bit from selling his paintings and has spent a lot on consumption. Do you think the sudden change in his lifestyle will affect his creativity?

Zhenglu:  We cannot guarantee that one would not expand some secular desires after a sudden success. But at least we educate students to always keep their purity and independence. We strictly request them to paint from their hearts. But I have a dangerous judgment about Yang. He had been in the streets for most of his life and made connections with all kinds of people who misbehaved. He is a simple man and would follow people who asked him to go gambling. Anyone, who is suddenly respected as a great man, might lose himself. Could someone lure Yang into drugs, now that he is making money? It is important to maintain and enrich the soil for his creativity. I do not exclude the possibility of exposing these things online, as it’s the best way to stop misbehavior. 

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by Ying Li 

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 Magazine.


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