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Farmers' art: Color it ‘happy’
By Wang Jie

When mentioning Jinshan, a suburban district of Shanghai, many will immediately think of a special product that has nothing to do with the area’s well-known agricultural goods: peasant paintings done by farmers.

At the western tip of the district is a traditional water town — a scenic area with many canals and old buildings — named Fengjing. It is best known for originating “Jinshan Farmer Painting,” a style that has become quite well-known in China and internationally.

Often given as diplomatic gifts, Jinshan farmer paintings have been exhibited around the world in more than 17 countries and regions, including in London’s prestigious British Museum. Farmer painters in suburban Jinshan District are famous for their colorful scenes of country life, known as “Chinese Picassos,” and the government is schooling them and setting up a website so they can market their works.

The “primitive” painters usually use a wide range of striking colors across the canvas. Instead of exploring modern urban reality, traditional rural themes such as fishing, cloth dyeing, spinning and market scenes are preferred.

Figures and objects are usually drawn in a way that most people may consider childish.

“Jinshan farmer painting is somewhat similar to children’s drawing, relying mostly on the imagination rather than professional skills,” says farmer painter Chen Xiu, who owns “Hong Sheng Huo,” which was the first Jinshan farmer painting brand.

Works by Chen’s father, Chen Fulin, has been exhibited in the British Museum.

Originally, Jinshan’s people painted frescoes on the walls above the kitchen stove in the days before they had modern cookers. The wood-burning stoves were part of the architecture. But the frescoes were difficult to preserve because of the humid weather.

In the late 1950s, thanks to some well-known artists such as Han Heping, the farmer painters learned to paint on rice paper. Chen Fulin was one of the students who drew his first paintings of farm life, and that was the start of Jinshan farmer painting.

During the late 1970s, artist Wu Tongzhang began teaching painting techniques to the farmers in Jinshan. Most of these first painters were older women skilled in folk arts that had been passed down through generations. These traditional folk arts, such as embroidery, paper-cutting, paper folding and weaving, heavily influenced the style of painting.

“Happiness” is the enduring theme of all Jinshan farmer paintings. One can feel the pure nature of the rural life and the sweet smell of the soil from the vivid works.

For those of the older generations, farmer painting is a way to express their love and passion toward the place, people and life they are living. Rural life is their only inspiration.

But while older painters stick to their traditional topics, young farmer painters have shifted to a broader vision in their themes, including urban life, foreign cities and towns. For example, Lu Yongzhong regards Jinshan farmer painting as an international art and says it is not necessary to stick to a single subject.

Four years ago, Lu and Shao Qihua, two farmer painters, drew two paintings of Haibao, the mascot of the World Expo 2010 Shanghai. The two paintings were sent as gifts to the Bureau of Shanghai World Expo Coordination.

Now farmer painting is no longer just something to kill time after work. Instead it has become a career for many Jinshan families. The Jinshan Farmer Painting Academy has been established.

“Both my wife and I entered the first series of courses,” says painter Yao Xiping, “We met there and got to know each other.”

Three to four days are usually needed for a 60-centimeter square  painting. Buyers come from around the world, and many people order paintings through a website set up by the local government.

Jinshan Farmer Painting Village in Fengjing Town shortens the gap between the special art genre and visitors. Different from modern silent galleries with their chilled-out music, this folk-art hub is vibrant. Surrounded by the colorfully painted exterior walls of the farmer houses and stone bridges, farmer artists’ studios are open to visitors who want to get a close-up look at the artists in action.

Visitors can see how farmer paintings are created by different painters, and sometimes they can chat with painters and enjoy a cup of tea in the studio.

“I have been to the Jinshan Farmer Painting Village, and the trip was quite impressive,” recalled Zhao Zhengrong, a local oil painter. “It is like a small art community, but the advantage of the art hub lies in the mix of tourism. Away from the hustle and bustle of a big cosmopolitan city, visitors can relax under a natural environment to see how farmer paintings are created.”

In a bid to inject new blood into the folk art hub, sometimes the village invites farmer artists from other parts of the country to enrich the genre.

As part of China’s contemporary folk art, farmer paintings are unique, with a deep-rooted, agrarian essence. The art form is also an important channel for farmers to communicate with the outside world and allows them to interpret their arduous lives through their colorful brushwork.

“These artworks reflect the creativity of the working class,” says Zhu Kunjie, a 30-something local visitor, “It makes me feel really rural and special, and I even want to buy several pieces to decorate my apartment.”

The happy theme in Jinshan farmer painting is a disadvantage in the eyes of some.

“I don’t want to run down the status of Jinshan farmer painting,” says a local artist surnamed Wang, who refused to be further identified. “But after all, it is still a self-entertainment of those farmers. The charisma about Jinshan farmer painting is like its title suggests. Those farmers who haven’t received any academic training create these art pieces.

“In fact, I like its dynamic colors, yet when talking about its repeated theme, I could only say that ‘happy ending’ is not real and serious art. Of course, if you want to relax yourself for a weekend, then a trip to the village plus a good mood might be a choice.”

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