When I was in a Texas mandatory middle school art class, I hated calligraphy. Something about the way you had to hold the pen made it difficult for me to grasp (pun intended), and the work I turned in never appeared in my portfolio, which honestly consisted of rehashed anime drawings and dope charcoal paintings.
For Song Wenjing, calligraphy is his masterpiece. The Chinese artist has racked up numerous accolades for his work, and has also dabbled in producing beautiful watercolor paintings to adorn his remarkable penmanship. In China, unlike my southern classroom, calligraphy is not only a form of art, but as influential as poetry, traditional paintings or architecture, if not more so.
This week, on October 21-23, Wenjing’s art will be on display at the Ritz Carlton in Arlington during his Art of Heart exhibition. Through a translator, On Tap Magazine was able to speak to the internationally renowned artist about his work, his inspirations and his first US gallery.
On Tap: How did you discover calligraphy, and were you always good at the art?
Song Wenjing: My dad’s older brother Mr. Song Dachen was a graduate of Huangpu Military Academy (the equivalent of West Point of China) and is a great calligrapher. I learned from him while he was not noticing.
From elementary school to university, I became well-known for all of the public posters and blackboards I drew. Among my influencers there are my high school teacher Mr. Du Xijin and many folk artists. In other words, I started a love affair with painting since very early on, it was sort of a forbidden love and nobody understood what art meant. Not until 1976 did I realize that art has historical roots and traditions.
OT: Do you experiment in other forms of art?
SW: Calligraphy and Chinese painting are my all-time favorite. Calligraphy and painting cultivate aspiration, pen and ink nurture emotions. Other than that, I like seal carving, paper cutting, paperback design, and I am obsessed with Peking Opera, drama and crosstalk. Also, I am passionate about Chinese folk art and engraved print, both Chinese and foreign, such as collectable book labels. I believe in the connectivity and fascinating internal logic. China has rich folk arts that intrigue me constantly.
OT: How much time do you spend on each piece?
SW: It varies by the number of characters, size of the painting and complexity of the techniques applied. It can be from a few hours to a few days. For watercolor painting, I like to go into the wilderness and paint live. The conditions can be tough, but my heart is filled with joy and passion.
For calligraphy, it has to be done indoors, where the calligrapher and his studio come together. Sun shines through the window, quality writing tools are displayed in perfect condition and the ambience triggers ripples of thoughts that go back several hundred years. A piece of work may seem simple, but the diligent practice requires at least 10 years.
OT: Are you from an artistic family? Describe your family’s role in your art work?
SW: I cannot say that my family is artistic, but all the members aspire to love art and culture. My parental and maternal grandmothers were both good at needlework, which is a type of life art. Dad is a man with many artistic and sports hobbies, he was my first educator who opened up my eyes for Chinese classical literature, through teaching me the relationships and poems from The Dream of the Red Chamber.
Other relatives are also enthusiastic fans of painting, calligraphy, drama and singing. My twin daughters, Han Er and Lu Er, carry the family torch and studied Western Art History at Central Academy of Arts and Fudan University, both graduated with Master’s Degrees. I am content to pass on art and poetry as our family legacy.
OT: Where do you get inspiration? Are there other artists you look to, or something completely unrelated?
SW: Life throws us different emotions and feelings- happiness, grievances, sadness, longing, yearning, admirations, heart-breaking, etc. All of them trigger art impulses and blend into the form of calligraphy and painting.
I also admire many Chinese artists, including Yan Zhenjing from Tang, Su Dongpo from Song, eight mountain masters fro Qing and Qi Baishi in contemporary time. They both exhibit virtuous personality and classic artistic concepts. I will spend the whole life learning from them. I am also a fan of several American artists, including humorous Rockville, stone-cold Weiss, and the creative Andy Warhol. Many contemporary rising stars also give me inspiration.
OT: How excited are you to bring your work to the United States?
SW: Since the end of last year, I had been contemplating a personal exhibition in the US. My objective is to “be different”—different from my previous exhibitions, discovering new ways to display Chinese traditional art, and creating more “Aha” moments both by the art forms and content. Certainly, the center of such efforts should be a unique personal style.
I have huge expectations for this show, for which I hand picked 30 pieces from 60 master works I did over the past few years. I look forward to meeting American art lovers and brainstorming.
OT: What are you working on now?
SW: Three things. First, promoting my US exhibition and Peking University exhibition, select works and prepare pamphlets. Second, visiting my twin daughters who are exchanging at Taiwan Normal University, while touring a few museums and former residences. Last, my recent life painting at Shanxi Hequ left countless thoughts about calligraphy and life. Painting has become part of my life, my bloodline and my soul. It is our collective culture tradition and my personal study blended together, which stimulates me to change and progress day by day.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Art of Heart is held from October 21-23. From noon-5 p.m. on Friday; 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. on Saturday; and 11 a.m to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Wenjing will be present throughout the exhibition. The Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City: 1250 S Hayes St., Arlington, VA; 703-415-5000; www.hurrahmarketing.com/productions/song-wenjing/