Painters help lift county out of poverty

By Zhao Ruixue in Jinan| (China Daily)| Updated : 2018-08-22

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Farmer artists work on a giant painting of peonies for the venue of the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao, Shandong province. [CHINA DAILY]

More than 15,000 farmers practice the gongbi art style across Shandong's Juye county

Huang Guigui held two brushes - one with pigment and the other with water - in her right hand as she painted a peony flower in the Chinese realist style known as gongbi.

But her hands did not look like those of a painter, and for good reason.

Only two years ago she was a farmer. She quit working in the fields and sublet her contracted land to become a professional painter working for the Luxi art academy in Juye county, Shandong province.

"The earnings from farmland are no more than 10,000 yuan ($1,460) a year, just a tenth of what I can earn from painting," she said. "More importantly, painting is a more decent job, and I love it."

Huang, in her 30s, had worked part-time for the academy from 2011 before deciding to make it her full-time career.

There are many farmer-painters in Juye, which is famous for its paintings of peony flowers.

According to official data, more than 15,000 farmers practice gongbi in more than 50 villages in Juye. The market for their art has been growing rapidly, and last year their paintings sold for 500 million yuan.

It all started in the 1970s, when many artists flocked to the city of Heze to paint peonies, which are viewed in China as representing elegance and nobility. Heze has a history of peony cultivation dating back 1,400 years.

People in Juye, part of Heze, saw how paintings could be turned into an income. In 1974, a workshop was established to produce items such as Easter eggs decorated with hand-painted animal or scenic patterns for export. By the time it closed in 1978, the workshop had trained hundreds of people as painters.

The closure of the workshop drove most of the painters back to their farms, but some founded a privately owned cooperative that produced paintings for sale in cities such as Xi'an and Beijing, where there are large numbers of tourists.

The cooperative's brisk business gradually encouraged a lot of farmers to become part-time painters, and Juye county is now home to about 50 art academies, each one usually based in a single village.

Luxi art academy, in Liuguantun village, has more than 600 farmer artists who paint outside the farming season, according to Xu Fengqiu, the academy's founder. They mostly produce paintings of peonies.

To improve their skills, the academy invites professional painters to train the farmers. Huang was so keen to learn more she even paid for additional training courses in bigger cities.

The village art academies have won support from the county government, which considers them "a good way to lift farmers out of poverty", according to He Xizhen, director of the county's poverty alleviation office.

County authorities hold free painting classes for farmers and organize promotional events to help the academies expand their markets, He said.

Paintings created by Juye farmers have been sold to more than 10 countries and regions, according to official statistics, and He said some of their peony paintings have been chosen as national gifts for foreign dignitaries.

A recent magnum opus from Juye's farmer artists was a giant painting of peonies for the venue of the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao, Shandong, in June that has been called China's largest gongbi painting. Standing 15.5 meters tall and 4.2 meters wide, it depicts 218 peony flowers and took five artists 77 days to complete.

Wang Dong, Juye's Party secretary, said it is ready to help people outside the county, in the hope that painting can also help increase their incomes.

Gao Tanyin, 51, one of the five farmer painters who produced the work for the SCO summit and a member of the China Artists Association, said a painting class will be held in Juye this year for people from outside Shandong, and applications have been rolling in.

County authorities are also trying to cultivate more national-class artists as well as helping local academies build their painting brands and expand markets.

"The painting industry is one of our major ways to revitalize the rural area," Wang said. "We will try our best to take the industry to a higher level."