Farmers and village people find a new way to make a living as they harvest their creativity, Ma Zhenhuan and Qi Xiao report in Hangzhou.
On the second floor of the Zitong Art Gallery, 43-year-old Jiang Xiaoqin is working on her painting in a studio, which doubles as part of an exhibition hall. She draws some yellow from her palette and dabs it on her canvas before stopping to check if it is too thick. Now and then, she stands back a pace or two, takes a survey of her painting and then decides whether to apply more.
Around her are five other men and women, standing in front of their respective easels and working on their own paintings. They look exactly like those professional artists that one would encounter in an art academy.
Only they aren't. They are farmers from Dujing village, the administrative seat of Zitong township, Chun'an county in East China's Zhejiang province.
Starting to learn painting only three years ago, Jiang has already made a name for herself. Indeed, she is affectionately known as "Sister Corn" for her corn-themed paintings and artistic creations, especially after her oil painting-titled Corn, unsurprisingly-was auctioned for 7,500 yuan ($1,121) at a special exhibition held in Shanghai in 2020 featuring 61 works by Zitong's farmers.
"Corn is a typical locally grown food," Jiang explains. "I think it can best show who we really are."
Jiang admits coyly that she was somewhat embarrassed at the beginning by the moniker "Sister Corn"."But then I realized this is how the public recognizes my work and effort, and now I'm very pleased when people address me like that."
Before she took up painting as a "serious hobby", Jiang's daily life was a bit monotonous, with routine farm work, house work as well as parenting. "Now more colors have come into my life," Jiang says. "And it isn't bad at all to win honors and earn more money!"Jiang is among more than a thousand farmers who have benefited from courses provided in the art training camps established in Zitong township, which in turn are the result of a province-wide "rural revitalization through art" campaign in Zhejiang. Since 2019, when Dujing village became one of the first villages to take part, over 20 prominent artists have been attracted to the town, setting up permanent shop and offering regular tutoring to local residents.
Yan Yuan, an arts professor from Ningbo University, is one of them. In 2019, he first came to the town on a field trip with his students, and was immediately captured by its surroundings. "I just couldn't suppress the urge to create art in such a charming environment as Zitong offers," says Yan.
Before long, Yan became the general artistic director of Zitong and in the next three years, he would spend the better half of each year in the town, teaching his farmer students like "Sister Corn", curating exhibitions for them and helping them make and sell art-themed products. "You can clearly see the power of art and how it is transforming the place," Yan says.
So far, a total of 19 arts colleges and academies, including China Academy of Art, have chosen the place as their base for painting and sketching field trips. Apart from the Zitong Art Gallery, two institutes of calligraphy and painting and an avant-garde art gallery named Ant Art Gallery can be found in Zitong township as well. Residents of all ages, from middle-aged like Jiang to the elderly and primary school students, have been enthusiastically engaging in calligraphy and painting. It is little wonder that Zitong township has been widely known as the "town of calligraphy and painting".
In addition, 388 houses and buildings that were laying in disuse throughout the town have been renovated, according to Cheng Wangzhen, mayor of Zitong.
"Villages in the town would each have their own unique artistic features," Cheng says. "For example, there are a photography-themed village and a sculpture-themed village, which would cater to the different interests and needs of artists and visitors alike."
Some 480,000 tourists traveled to the town in 2021, generating nearly 8 million yuan in revenue for local people, despite all the difficulties and challenges caused by the periodic surge of COVID-19 cases in China.
"A piece of painting, a plot of land, and money earned sitting at home. "This is how Zitong residents see their life in recent years. In fact, their life is also changing in the subtlest ways. With an increasing array of options and more art space to spend their leisure time, more and more local people now choose to visit galleries and pick up their brushes.
In the past, more people would rather go to drink and play mahjong as their pastime, Cheng readily admits. "Now, they choose paint over pint, and more harmonious social and neighborly relations ensue."
Yan the artist concurs. "These people love life as much as everybody else, and paintings by people like 'Sister Corn' are the best testament," argues Yan.
They aspire to a better life. "For them to achieve common prosperity, to borrow a popular term, all they need is a little push and nudge in the right direction, for example, via art,"Yan adds. "To me, common prosperity is as much about gains in the material sense as in the spiritual, and throughout China, tens of thousands of villages like Dujing would completely change if more art is introduced."
For now, Zhejiang seems to have taken the lead. Currently, the "rural revitalization through art" program covers 86 villages all over the province, which is expected to expand in the near future.
"Don't be too surprised if artworks by a 'Sister Cabbage' or a 'Brother Pumpkin' appear in your local art galleries,"Yan says. "For these farmers, their life is art and now art has become part of their life."