According to many Chinese myths, says painter Shan-Shan Sheng, the sun contains a yellow bird that flies up into the sky in the morning and back below the horizon at night. One of Sheng’s favorite folktales about the sun goes like this: One morning, for no apparent reason, ten suns came over the horizon instead of one. Before long, the heat grew so intense that plants wilted and people and animals collapsed to the ground. Then a man named Ho-Yi took up his bow and arrow and shot nine of the suns. Ho-Yi became a national hero, and with work the people were able to repair the sky and restore their land.
Sheng, an artist from the People’s Republic of China living in Chicago, does big, intense paintings, with wide brush strokes and strong colors. The figures in her paintings–usually people and animals–are often hard to distinguish from the backgrounds–sometimes landscapes, sometimes abstract–because everything is so bright.
A few years ago, Sheng did three paintings based on the story of the ten suns. In Ten Suns Rising, people red-orange with heat are crawling on all fours, and the suns behind them are yellow birds. In Ho-Yi Shooting Nine Suns, birds fall to the ground around the hero as he draws his bow and aims at the sky. In Nu-Wa Repairing the Sky, big blue and green shapes lie between the orange figure of a woman and the dimmer orange background.
These three paintings, along with several more of Sheng’s works, once hung in the East West Contemporary Art Gallery, where Sheng is artistic director. Then last April the East West Gallery and seven of the other galleries at the corner of Orleans and Huron burned to the ground. Unlike the coming of the ten suns, this disaster didn’t threaten to destroy life; instead it destroyed millions of dollars worth of art, including 25 of Sheng’s paintings.
Sheng, who is 32, came to the United States in 1982 to learn to paint with oils–the 25 paintings destroyed in the fire represented half of all her work in oil. But a week after the fire–after “so many lawyer meetings,” she says–she picked up her brush and went back to work. Since the fire she has completed three paintings. She has consciously changed her style–it has become more abstract–and her subject matter. And now one of her old paintings, which had been safely tucked away in Boston, has been chosen to adorn the poster for Asian Fest, an Oriental-culture festival taking place Labor Day weekend at Navy Pier.
Sheng’s English is good enough to convey her complex ideas about her paintings, but her sentences are often broken, and she frequently talks about herself in the second person. “When you lose that amount of work, you put more thought into each piece,” she says in her deep voice. “Your time is more valuable . . . you want the painting to be more perfect.”
Her work is a unique combination of Eastern and Western influences. When Sheng was 15, she was taught traditional Chinese ink painting. She mastered the loose, broad brush strokes of the art and became a well-known artist, but she admired the bright paintings of Cezanne and Matisse. So she came to the United States to study, first at Mount Holyoke and then at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 1987, she was an artist-in-residence at Harvard.
In the United States she developed a new style, translating the broad, free strokes of Chinese painting into oil, but her subject matter remained traditionally Chinese: animals and people and natural landscapes. “I always want my painting to represent Chinese history, heritage, culture,” Sheng says.
In 1985, partly because she was homesick and partly because she was looking for new subject matter, she took a trip back to her native country. She visited the caves at Dunhuang in southwest China, where drawings–some of them 4,000 years old–depict ancient myths. She spent five days on a train through the Gobi Desert, watching camels and mountains from her window. And she traveled along the Silk Road, once a major route to the West, now lined with ruins.
“Back in ancient time, they went along the Silk Road to the West to exchange goods,” Sheng says. “This time you’re going so that maybe you can exchange something, you know, get something back.”
After she returned, the paintings she did of animals looked scratchy and old, almost like cave drawings. She also did several paintings based on ancient stories–not the stories she’d seen on the walls at Dunhuang, but the ones she knew from childhood, like the story of the ten suns. “When you went to this place,” says Sheng, “you would think of this story–so hot, so much sun, that you’re thinking of lots of stories.”
The paintings she did after her trip were some of her favorites, and almost all of them were lost in the fire. She may try to redo some of the animal paintings. But she will never try to paint the myths again, she says. She could never re-create the right mood.
Her next step, she says, will be to move away from ancient history. She’d like to base some paintings on modern Chinese history–since the turn of the century, for instance. But her subject matter will remain simple–still animals, people, rivers, maybe the Great Wall–and in painting them, she’ll still be telling about people fighting disaster. “It’s still the same,” she says. “The meaning is still about survival. The subject is still human beings.”
Sheng, who has family in mainland China, had to cancel the trip home she’d planned for this summer because of the recent turmoil there. She still writes her family about once a month, but she hasn’t received anything from them since the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
For now she is waiting, and planning to go back next summer. “Hopefully sooner,” she says. But eventually, she says, she will probably use what is happening in China as subject matter for her paintings. “There will be yet another stage of history to go through,” she says.
A few of Sheng’s paintings will hang in the East West Contemporary Art Gallery, now located on the main floor of the Merchandise Mart, until mid-September; gallery hours are 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. Sheng will also exhibit a few works at the first annual Asian Fest, September 2 through 4 at Navy Pier, Grand Avenue and the lake. For more information, call the gallery at 664-8003 or Asian Fest at 624-1242.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.