China-born painter Xiao Song Jiang reflects on his artistic journey and goals
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the November 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art November 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art November 2012 digital download here. Or simply subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
Xiao Song Jiang taped another oil sketch of riverboats onto the wall of his room. It was the early 1970s, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in China. As he had done every day when his factory shift was finished, the young man had bicycled to the Yangtze River in the middle of the large industrial city of Wuhan, where he grew up. There, for an hour and a half each day, he spent his only free time making oil sketches of river traffic and docks.
There was no money for canvases, so he painted on cardboard. He’d received no formal art education, since Mao Tse-tung’s communist government closed schools before Jiang reached high school, and he—along with millions of other students—had been forced to leave the cities and work on farms. As a teenager with an artistic sensibility, Jiang sought out books of Western poetry and novels by Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas. Libraries had been shut down, and all aspects of Western culture were banned, so he borrowed books in secret from friends.
Artist friends, too, were his only source of education about painting at the time, gathering in each other’s rooms to share what they knew. At the factory, Jiang was among the workers chosen to create paintings each year for an exhibition of propagandistic imagery. The subject matter was dull, he says, but he was happy just to be able to paint. “During the Cultural Revolution, painting was my only spiritual lift,” he says now, looking back on this difficult period of his life.
Yet even as he speaks from the comfort of his Toronto-area home, whose light-filled second-story studio offers views of tall evergreens and nearby Lake Ontario, the 57-year-old painter is able to appreciate the benefits that came with his earlier hardships. Because he had no camera, and because his factory job—also required by the Chinese government—left little free time, he taught himself to paint on location. “I’m glad now that time insisted me to paint outdoors,” he reflects. “This experience gives me the feel for color, mastering the process, beginning to end.”
Jiang’s mastery of the landscape, city-scape, and especially scenes containing boats and water has been recognized internationally over the years. His award-winning work has been exhibited in North America, Japan, Hong Kong, Turkey, Singapore, and elsewhere, and is in the collection of the National Art Museum of China. Earlier this year his painting TIDE won the Gold Medal in the Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition, in Evergreen, CO.
After decades of painting boats—powerfully drawn to their curving lines, worn colors, and the quality of reflections in the water around them—Jiang painted TIDE after being struck by the sight of an abandoned wooden boat on a beach in Greece. “There was a contrast of a massive object on the beach and the soft clouds, water, and wind—the image was very dramatic and left a good impression,” he explains. “This boat had a very good pose and texture from the old paint; these two elements and the surroundings created a very serene mood. There was a lot of feeling seeing this boat past its use, abandoned and dreary, but it felt very alive.” Two years later the artist returned to the same spot but was disappointed to find the boat gone.
Although Jiang (who goes by the more easily pronounceable Song, rather than his first name, Xiao) has traveled extensively in recent years, he had never been outside of China until he was married and in his early 30s. As a boy in Wuhan before the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, he thought he wanted to be an architect. His father was a technical engineer, and his mother worked as a primary-school principal. But the closing of schools eliminated that option, and his creative energy was funneled instead into teaching himself to paint.
When Chinese society was reopened and began to modernize through the policies of Mao’s successor, Jiang saw his persistence in self-education begin to pay off. Out of hundreds of applicants from his home province who underwent the highly competitive examination process, he was the only one accepted into the Zhejiang Art Academy (now the China Academy of Art.) Because he had worked more than five years at the factory, Chinese policy at the time granted him a stipend for studying, allowing him to purchase better art supplies. He was placed in the printmaking department, his second choice, but his watercolor instructor allowed him to work in oils during class.
After earning a bachelor of arts, Jiang taught watercolor to architecture students at a government-run construction college in Wuhan. Then came further studies at Hubei Art Academy and the selection of his paintings by the Chinese government for inclusion in several international exhibitions. Jiang’s sister-in-law had studied in Canada, and through her he learned of an opportunity to show his work in Edmonton, Alberta. In 1988 he traveled to Edmonton for a one-man show. Following the show he intended to return to China, where his wife and 6-month-old son remained. The Chinese government further encouraged his return by offering him a voucher to buy a motorcycle, a rare and hard-to-obtain commodity during that period in China.
Then came Tiananmen Square. The massive protests in major Chinese cities—including Wuhan—and ensuing massacres by the Chinese army became symbolized internationally by a lone protester facing down a row of tanks. Having published writings critical of the government in a Chinese newspaper, Jiang was concerned about the government’s response should he return. He obtained asylum in Canada and remained, joined two years later by his wife and son. In 1992 the family moved to Toronto, which offered a vibrant art community and proximity to other large cities. Initially Jiang supported his family as a street artist creating charcoal portraits, but his landscapes soon began to catch collectors’ eyes. For 13 years he attended Art- expo New York, where galleries purchased virtually everything he brought.
With his new life in Canada, the artist found not only political freedom but also an infusion of inspiration in the expansive North American landscape, strong sunlight, bold colors, and easy access to both pristine nature and urban scenes. Jiang’s early painting style was influenced by a Russian landscape painter with masterful use of gray tones. In Canada, he turned to brighter colors. He began using the palette knife along with brushes for applying paint. He discovered a wealth of new architecture and styles of boats he hadn’t seen before. And he began to travel. Europe, like parts of his native China, revealed centuries-old cities and venerable stone buildings perfectly suited to his artistic approach.
BROWN’S MEMORY, for instance, depicts a handsomely arched bridge and buildings whose reflections create a strong sense of balance in the mirror-like surface of a quiet Venice canal. The painter’s three favorite features in the watery city are all represented in the scene: boats, stone bridges, and narrow lanes. “I remember the light through the clouds casting a brown, bronze color over this scene, like the title of this piece,” he recalls. “During my third trip to Venice and 300 bridges later, I found this very peaceful and quiet area.”
Yet Jiang finds equal visual interest in the bustling cityscapes he encounters in places like Toronto and New York. The inspiration for 34TH STREET was a gray day in March some years ago. “I always wanted to paint one of New York’s classic buildings,” he relates. “One day I was heading to the parking lot during the Artexpo when I noticed the Empire State Building in the cool background along the evening rush-hour scene of 34th Street. This gave the scene tremendous depth. The little spots of color between the dark buildings give life to a gray city street during a rainy day.”
A visual sense of balance and stability in Jiang’s art echoes his outlook on life, as reflected in the Chinese characters whose meaning translates to “moderation” and “let it be.” Among other things, this means balance between work and play. Fishing, swimming, riding his motorcycle—yes, he finally got one—ping pong, and singing in Chinese along with his karaoke machine at home are among his favorite types of play. In his early years in Toronto, Jiang created ceramic tiles, which his wife, Hong Zhang, a former eye doctor, painted with original designs.
Painting may be his work, but Jiang also sees it as a source of relaxation, both for himself and for those who experience his art. In a fast-paced, stressful world, a painting’s beauty and serenity can calm the mind, he believes. “You can touch people’s hearts, and I want to sincerely convey this, hoping to establish a harmonious relationship between nature and people. In this way, I have achieved my goals when my art serves the people.”
J.M. Stringer Gallery of Fine Art, Bernardsville, NJ; P & C Art Galleries, Washington, DC; Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO; Ventana Art Gallery, Sacramento, CA; J.R. Mooney Galleries, San Antonio, TX; Annapolis Marine Art Gallery, Annapolis, MD; Gallery 310, Stillwater, MN; Renjeau Galleries, Natick, MA; www.songjiangstudio.com.
Featured in the November 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art magazine November 2012 digital download
Southwest Art magazine November 2012 print edition
Or subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS
• Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
• Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
• Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook