Huaicun Zhang has many strings to her artistic bow. Not only is she a prize-winning painter and an honorary member of the Royal Society of British artists, she also writes children’s books, plays and poems, and illustrates them to boot. You can see some of these illustrations together with 58 traditional Chinese ink paintings and 23 works in oil, in her solo exhibition at London’s Mall Galleries.
Flowers and landscape dominate, unsurprisingly given the exhibition’s title. The lotus flower is pre-eminent as it is so often in Asian art. With is roots in muddy water giving rise to beautiful and flagrant petals, it serves as a perfect metaphor.
Zhang quotes the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhou Dun Yi in his poem Loving the Lotus. “The lotus grows in mud, yet never contaminates with it. And she floats on waving water, yet never dances with it”. She has depicted many versions of the flower bringing to it a very personal style. You see it in full bloom, as buds in water often accompanied by modern poetry in Chinese text. She imbues within these works a melancholic, nostalgic air.
Flowers have been a passion for Huaicun Zhang since childhood. She was born in Qinghai in the prairie region of north-west China surrounded by nature. She is part of the Tu ethnic minority, famous in China for being horseback riders. Family lore says that she is a descendant of one of the generals in Genghis Khan’s army who, back in the 13th century, had command of 3,000 soldiers in the town of Weiyuan in the Qilian Mountains close to the area in which Zhang grew up.
Her grandmother taught her that flowers and trees had spirits and if you talked to them they’d protect their land for you. Zhang watched as her father made sketches each day. He also had an extensive library of art books that inspired his budding artist daughter.
After moving south to Guangxhou, Zhang taught art to primary school children for 15 years before deciding to study art at university in order to become a full-time artist. Soon her work was being exhibited at solo exhibitions around the world including in Hong Kong, Macau, Seoul, Tokyo, New York and Paris.
It was while on an exchange visit to London University that Zhang made the life-changing decision to relocate to the UK. “I liked London so much, everything here was fresh and it reminded me of my hometown,“ she tells me as we sit in her spacious home called Birchwood House on a hillside in leafy Surrey.
She’d asked her husband to send over money on the pretence of buying art. Instead she bought a house. Art is everywhere on its walls. We take tea in the music room dominated by a grand piano and a variety of stringed instruments all regularly played. In an adjacent field, horses graze, a sign she is keeping up the family tradition!
Family is an important part of Zhang’s success. She persuaded her husband Hui and her daughter Xian to join her in the UK back in December 2004. The family now run a Scottish distillery. Xian is taking a PhD having gained a first at Oxford in PPE. They are the first readers of all her work helping to proof read and offer suggestions, and, in one case, in her book of children’s poems entitled The Pencil Tree, contributed visually. “My mother wrote the poems based on my own sketches that she secretly collected when I was between four and six years old,” says Xian. “I had no idea she was collecting them.”
“My family are really important to me”, Zhang says. “They have always supported my artistic life. I think I’m so lucky. When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming an artist and still now I’m following that dream.”
The ink drawings such as in Feelings about Lu Sun Literature Institute reveal intricate draughtsmanship often executed with several different brushes on xuan paper. In contrast, many of the oil landscapes in the show are loosely painted in vivid, exaggerated colours that exude an inner warmth reflecting the affection of her youth and a child-like spirit. As Zhang puts it, “Writing poetry and painting were ways to communicate the beautiful dreams I held in the depths of my heart”
Huaicun’s World, Blossom is showing at Mall Galleries from 12 – 23 July 2022
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.