It was one afternoon last December, when five visually impaired musicians from the China Disabled Art Troupe Project arrived at a rehearsal hall in Beijing, and were invited to use a calligraphy brush to write out their names, and then they created artwork by infusing their dreams onto a multi-colored oil painting, while becoming part of a unique “heart-to-heart experience.”
The first dip in ink, the first time using a brush, the first time drawing—all of these baby steps eased them out of their darkness, and sparked the spirit of creation. To a professional artist, a simple scribble is not worth noting. But to them, it was an invaluable effort. With their hands full of colors, they declared, “The imperfect life is harmonious.”
Saxophone player Zhang Lijuan, 18, from Yangzhou in China’s Jiangsu Province, lost his sight when his retinas were damaged by a high fever when he was 3 years old. During the workshop, he created a piece called “The Beauty of Nature.”
I was there as a representative of the publication, San Yue Feng, that day and interviewed Zhang, and some of the other artists, about the work they created.
Bai Fan: What are you drawing?
Zhang Lijuan: This painting is of the whole natural world. I crave freedom—sun, ocean, trees, and forests that are filled with grasslands and birds.
Bai: In your drawing, you included the beach. Why is that?
Zhang: If there is ocean then there should be beach. There also should be birds flying down from the sky. I didn’t draw them flying down, but instead drew them beside the beach so that they could rest, play and look at the trees and grass.
Bai: What is the green color on the bottom?
Zhang: Grass. On top of that is forest. The black color is dirt and there are lots of trees on top of that. All the trees are recently planted, that’s why they’re green. This is in contrast to my very bright, white inner world.
Zhang: Because these things are the true beauties of nature. If there were people, then it would not be
Bai: Whom do you want to give this drawing to?
Zhang: I’m not too satisfied with it, so I wouldn’t want to give it away. But I would want to hang it somewhere. There were a lot of three-dimensional feelings that I did not know how to draw.
Tan Weihai, 25, who is also from Yangzhou, became blind as a result of medication his mother took to treat a cold while he was still in the womb. He started learning music at the age of 12, and during the workshop created a piece called “Dream.”
Bai: Did you enjoy this experience?
Tan Weihai: Drawing is a lot of fun. I was inspired by a song of mine called “Dream.” Music, literature and drawing, to an extent, all convey a common feature. For example, when playing a sad song, if you have reached a certain height [of emotion], people will know the feelings you are trying to convey.
Bai: Tell me more about “Dream.”
Tan: The “Dream” is the desert because I don’t know how to get there and I feel helpless. I “see” a blue river—I live in the countryside where the river is clear and in the summertime, it is very cooling. Hence, I am sitting at the riverside in my dreams, thinking about how I would get out. Next, I drew a path, which represents that I am constantly running. My goal is to let my hands touch the water.
Bai: I heard you like blue?
Tan: When I was little, I could see a little bit. The water was very clear, like the color of the chives we grew at our home.
Bai: What is the hardest part about drawing?
Tan: I can’t see, so things that are too detailed seem complicated. Hence, I use my hand to draw, which is better than painting with a brush.
Bai: If you were asked to give this drawing to a person, whom would you give it to?
Tan: I would give it to a Braille teacher at school. He helped me get from the countryside to the city; he helped me go to school, to start playing the flute, and even taught me to put my fingers on the holes of the instruments. He also explained how to read maps by pointing out places like Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu and other cities.
Bai: Today is the first time that you picked up a pen to draw. How does it feel? What did you two draw?
Wang Qi: A cozy home.
Bai: Why did you choose that theme?
Wang Qi: Because in all my visual memories, home has left the deepest impression in me, including all the things at my house right now. They are all objects I have seen and used when I could see. I know where they are located, because Mom and Dad have not moved them.
Bai: What are the two containers in the drawing?
Wang Qi: Empty bowls. And the thing that looks like an apple core is a goblet with red wine inside. I did not want this one bowl to be empty. It’d be best if there were warm rice inside of it, but there was no place to put it.
Bai: You originally wanted to draw an airplane, right?
Wang Qi: Yes, but airplanes are not three-dimensional enough, there is a curve plus two side wings. Tables are relatively more three-dimensional, although they are more difficult to draw, and even more so when there are things on top. But I’m willing to draw it. A table is something from home. At the foot of the table, there is a cat. But it does not look like one. Originally, the whiskers were supposed to be sideways and the ears were supposed to be pointy.
Bai: What is the hardest part about drawing?
Wang Qi: When you start out putting your thoughts on paper, you don’t know what the results will be. Even to draw a simple straight line, one hand has to stay steady and not move for even a simple yellow line, and the other hand has to finish drawing from beginning to end.
Wang Bin, 22, from Shandong, has a congenital visual disability. He plays the jinghu, a Chinese bowed string instrument with a high pitch. His work, “Symphony of Destiny” is like his music, with hints of abstraction and randomness.
Bai: Have you ever drawn before?
Wang Bin: When I was little I used crayons, but I don’t remember what I drew nor did I pay much attention to it then.
Bai: What are you drawing there?
Wang Bin: To the left is a violin, to the right is a house with a tree, at the top is a wild goose. The details in my head are clear: a bird’s eyes, nose, mouth, wings etc. But the moment I pick up my pen, I have a bad feeling about the drawing. There is a violin to the left, but I suddenly start thinking about Beethoven’s “Symphony of Fate,” ching, ching, ching—out goes three dots on top, one yellow line on the bottom.
Bai: You play the jinghu, why do you like to draw the violin?
Wang Bin: The structure of a jinghu is very simple. I want to draw an instrument that is more complicated to reflect my painting technique.
Bai: Do you find painting difficult?
Wang Bin: If I want to express everything that is in my heart, then making everything remarkably true to life is difficult. The colors, contours and lines are first created by a pen and then smudged by hand to see how the colors look. The sketchpad is too big, which gives me a bad sense of direction with it.
Bai: What have you gained?
Wang Bin: I’ve learned that drawing and music are very similar. They do not necessarily have to represent something. You can paint something abstract and random. I will try painting more variety of things later on.
Liu Tao, 25, has congenital cataracts with slight light perception. He grew up in Beijing and started learning accordion at 5 and picked up violin two years later. He also plays the sheng, a mouth-blown, free-reed instrument consisting of vertical pipes. His artwork was called “The Imperfect Life Is A Balanced Life.”
Bai: What is your favorite color?
Liu Tao: Blue because it represents limitless desire and fantasy, and it also represents open and refreshing feelings.
Bai: Your paintings are unique, talk about your ideas.
Liu: The ocean seen in the painting represents vastness and the lotus flower represents growing out of mud but staying pure and unstained. And the Buddha statue is sitting majestically above it all. But even though Buddha is sitting on top of the lotus flower, he cannot separate himself from the vastness of the ocean, or the stainlessness of the lotus flower.
Bai: Does this painting have anything to do with your music?
Liu: The curvy strings beside me represent my simple understanding of music. The smaller dots represent slight fluctuations, the bigger dots represent greater fluctuations. The three triangles I painted later on represent the sudden temperamental changes in strength. The parallel lines represent stability.
I imagine blue as the vastness of the ocean,
This story is part of a series of articles that will be published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities /Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.