Raising the image of folk art

Updated: 2012-01-26 09:17

By Yang Xiaonan (China Daily)

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Raising the image of folk art

Zheng Zhenhuai, a farmer-turned-artist in Henan province, works on a cloth sculpture work featuring pandas. Xiang Mingchao / China Daily

A farmer-artist in Henan has created a new folk art, cloth sculpture, which is based on traditional cloth painting but has raised patterned surfaces. Yang Xiaonan reports.

He uses an electric iron and then begins to draw on a piece of black cloth, as a giant panda begins to take shape. The pattern is beautiful, like a Chinese ink painting, but has a raised surface, like relief sculpture. Cloth sculpture is a folk art invented by 46-year-old Zheng Zhenhuai, a farmer from Huaibin county, Henan province, that was adapted from traditional Chinese cloth pasting paintings and has animal-like or plant-like patterns stuck together by paste or string.

Instead of paste and string, Zheng irons fabrics such as silk and cotton into patterns that are mounted on a foundation of white fabric at a high temperature by using more than 10 modified electric irons.

The electric irons are heated to a temperature of between 200 C and 600 C and can melt, sculpt, glue and discolor cloth, Zheng says.

He recalls how, in 1986, he burned a hole in his clothes when smoking. To his surprise, he found the area burned stuck together with beautiful patterns.

"I realized that I could modify traditional pasting paintings using high temperatures," Zheng says.

At the time he was farming and running a soy sauce business in the countryside, but inspired, he started to experiment on cloth art in his spare time.

He tried to make paintbrushes out of electric irons and straight iron devices, but failed to get the effect he was after. Zheng then started using bent iron devices.

"He was busy working on sculpting cloth every day, while other people were hanging out with friends," says Zhang Dianfang, Zheng's wife.

Zheng participated in art exhibitions at his own expense to present cloth art, but was disappointed with the reaction, after his work was called gaudy and rough.

The cost of developing his art depleted his funds and he had to borrow money from friends.

For the Spring Festival of 2003, Zheng's life hit a low, as he had nothing to eat but instant noodles and he was criticized for being lazy, while his wife did the farm work.

"We had little income as he was addicted to cloth sculpting," Zhang says.

But Zheng persevered: "No one understands how happy I am when I change pieces of cloth into beautiful artworks. I love this feeling. So I didn't give up."

In response and to improve his art, Zheng paid visits to famous painters, including Ni Baocheng, director of the Fine Folk Arts Association of Henan Province, and read a lot of fine arts books.

The turning point came in 2005 when the 2nd International Cultural Industry Fair was held in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. People were amazed by Zheng's 25-meter-long, 1-meter-wide work - a version of Riverside Scene During Qingming Festival, a famous Chinese paintings, from the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Zheng's multi-colored work featured more than 800 figures and scenes of people bustling about on a bridge, businessmen boarding boats and friends chatting on the riverbank.

The work was valued at 1 million yuan ($158,351).

"Zheng's cloth sculpture is an excellent invention. He sticks fibers together by high temperature, and not only makes them look like traditional cloth pasting paintings, but also offers an illusion of depth," says Qiao Taishan, deputy director of the Folk Artists' Association of Henan province.

Zheng's workroom in his apartment has two 2-meter-long worktables, cloth of various colors stacked in a bookcase - and award certificates overflowing from a big travel bag.

Zheng takes at least 20 days to finish a 0.1-square-meter work, but is resistant to the idea of mass producing the artworks, or even teaching others how to do it.

"Cloth sculptures are valuable because every work contains my love, time and endeavor. They would no longer be precious if they were sold everywhere. I invented it, and I only want my family to inherit this art," Zheng says, adding his 21-year-old daughter will follow in his footsteps.