1981 / 9月
In recent years, many self-educated artists have achieved prominence in the Republic of China. Their spontaneous and primitive style has attracted attention and praise from all sectors of the arts community.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of these self-made artists is Wu Lee Yu-ke, an 83-year-old grandmother who only took up painting at the age of 60. Previously Wu earned her living through needlework. Her interest in painting came when she tried to persuade her son to take up the career. During the past 20 years, Wu has completed 1,000 works, and has been invited to hold painting exhibitions both within Taiwan and abroad, winning for herself a reputation as the most talented self-educated artist in the Far East.
According to an old Chinese saying, life begins at 70. Higher living standards have enabled old people to turn away from such non-productive activities as playing chess, gardening, visiting friends or watching television. Instead they use the experience they have gained in life to create a new world for themselves.
The lack of academic training gives the works of these artists an honesty and simplicity which refreshes the soul of the viewer. Grandma Wu's paintings show her maternal instincts. In her colorful world, flowers are always blooming and fruits are always sweet. Children pick the fruit freely, and sit on tree trunks to eat their fill. Hens with their broods seem to exchange greetings, and herds of buffalo advance in a friendly fashion. Tigers leave their cages to play safely with the children. All the subjects of her painting are colorful-trees, fruit, crops, chickens, ducks, cattle, goats, horses and their young, and even the clouds.
With her silver hair and wrinkled brown skin, Wu is the epitome of everybody's grandmother. She says little, but is constantly smiling, and likes to wear a bouquet of jasmine in her hair. Her routine life contrasts sharply with the excitement of her artistic world.
Born at the end of the Manchu rule in a small town in Fukien province which translates into English as "Maple Arbor," Wu is a typical old-fashioned Chinese woman who was confined to her home and did needlework as a girl. Her expertise and the fact that her family owned a spinning and dyeing mill led to her being something of a celebrity in her neighborhood.
Grandma Wu later passed on her needlework skills to her six daughters. Her husband died when her youngest son was only five years old, and to make both ends meet, she had to do menial work in the fields. After the Chinese mainland fell to the Communists, she moved to Taiwan, but unfortunately could only bring her youngest son with her.
Although her needlework and cotton jacket making provided only the most meager living, she continued to encourage her son to learn modern painting. Even when her neighbors scoffed, and pointed to the money their sons were making, Wu stuck to her ideals, believing that art could not be regarded as a waste of money. Her son, Wu Chao-hsien, recalls: "She was only concerned that I grow up in a healthy and happy environment and live up to my ideals and interests."
When he found a job painting stage sets for a theatrical group, the family fortunes took a change for the better. One day when he returned home, he found his mother painting with the brushes and paints he had left behind. As he scrutinized the bold lines and lush colors, images of his hometown sprung to his mind. He began to realize how homesick his mother was, and went out to buy more paints and paper for her to work with.
The 20 years since Wu gave up her needlework to take up the brush seem to have gone by very quickly. Every morning Wu Chao-hsien makes sure that his mother's painting materials are prepared. He often joins his wife and three children to sit by her side and share her pleasure as she paints. The son and daughter-in-law have become in effect Grandma Wu's managers by helping her with assorting and mounting, organizing exhibitions, printing albums and delivering paintings to customers. They have also encourag ed her to take up woodcuts, pottery and clay modeling.
As could be expected, Grandma Wu is a great believer in the concept of learning in old age. At the age of 70, for instance, she learned the art of knitting from her daughter-in law. As she had no formal education, she had to learn from her son how to write her name so she could sign her pictures. To further her career as an artist she has tried her hand at all sorts of mediums including pencil, watercolor, ink and oil. Her works have also grown in size. Two years ago, she completed a painting 30 feet long by three feet high which she entitled "Garden of Life." This panoramic ink and splash work won wide acclaim when it was exhibited in Japan and West Germany. Today collectors of Grandma Wu's works can be found in several foreign countries, including Japan, the U.S., France, Switzerland and the Nether-lands.
Recently, she has left her studio to paint outdoors. As she still enjoys good health, she has traveled to Chitou, Sun Moon Lake and Yangmingshan to seek inspiration. At the end of July, she held a 20-day exhibition of her paintings at the Spring Gallery in Taipei. Visitors became immersed in the bright and colorful world created in more than 100 works of art in embroidery, inks, oils, pottery and woodcuts.
Though she is delighted by visits from her friends in literary and arts circles, she is especially happy to receive from time to time a group of old people who came with her from her home town in 1949. In their strongly accented speech, the old ladies always express admiration for the way in which Grandma Wu's works evoke the spirit of their old home. One of them admitted: "I am thinking of persuading my daughter to buy me paints and canvas so I can follow Grandma Wu's example. It's really fascinating."
Left: As well as painting, 83-year-old Grandma Wu has also taken up clay modeling for a change of pace. Picture shows a piece based on a mother gently holding her baby. Right: Wu Chao-hsien often joins his wife and three children to sit by Grandma Wu's side and share her pleasure as she paints.
1. In Grandma Wu's colorful world, flowers are always blooming and fruits are always sweet. Children pick the fruit freely, and sit on tree trunks to eat their fill. 2. Recently, she has left her studio to paint outdoors. In this picture, Green Lake in the suburbs of Taipei is full of bright colors and children's laughter. 3. A tree full of blossoming plum flowers is the motif for this modern-style oil painting. 4. Egrets break up the vista of lotus blossoms.
1. One of the favorite games for children at "Maple Arbor" is to ride the bamboo horse. The child in front wraps cloth around the bamboo in make-believe that it is a horse'shead. 2. This woodcut entitled "Summer Cool" has been bought by writer Han Han and her husband. 3. Though failing eyesight prevents Grandma Wu from doing embroidery any more, her excellent needlework can be seen from this piece done five years ago.