Friday, January 8, 2010

Puli in Nantou County stays hub of active artists 10 years after deadly September 21 earthquake

By Nancy T. Lu
Puli in central Taiwan has for years been attractive to artists in Taiwan due to its favorable natural attributes. Nestled in the Central Mountain Range, the land basin used to know inaccessibility due to the peaks and summits around it. Its cultural blooming started quite late, hampered by a lack of resources commonly seen in towns and villages.

Cultural activities in the early years were confined to temple festivals. The Han settlers of long ago were too preoccupied with competing and struggling with the Atayal and Pingpu aboriginal tribes in laying claim to the land.

“The rich families who eventually built their homes in Puli, establishing lasting roots there, hired artisans and craftsmen from Lugang to work for them,” said Wang Hao, a local author and painter. “The paintings and writings on the walls were done by the likes of Cheng Hung-yu .But the taste for such household decorations began to be cultivated only midway through the years of Japanese colonial rule,” Wang added when asked about art still seen in Puli’s ancestral homes today.

“Prior to the arrival of the Japanese colonizers, fine arts activities at the community level were virtually unheard of,” Liang Kun-ming, another Puli artist and pioneer in promoting fine arts in his hometown, pointed out. If these existed, they were undocumented. Cultural or historical relics handed down had more to do with the everyday life of the people. The indigenous population in Puli left behind stone coffins but these were gradually dug up and taken away by the Japanese, according to scholar Liang.

Fine arts development in Puli began to be nurtured in the 1940s and 1950s, noted Wang. The artists who actively tried to promote it saw their efforts start to grow roots during this period. The first turning point emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the protégés of Hsiao Mu-gui and Liao Ping-heng decided to return to their hometown upon the completion of academic fine arts training in Taipei. Hsiao pioneered in fine arts education in Puli. A number of retired art teachers continue to promote art education through painting classes in Puli today.

On August 21 to 25, 1971, an unprecedented major exhibition featuring 17 artists took place in Puli. Western-style paintings, Chinese brushworks, sculpture pieces, design as well as batik art were highlighted. Galleries did not exist in those days. Everything was improvised. When asked to sign at the entrance, some residents who showed up even ran away.

But experience in organizing exhibits was accumulated over a 20-year period. Exhibits were held from time to time, attracting participation by newcomers. Artists in urban settings heard about and became fascinated with the creative activities in the laid-back Puli environment. Some decided to set up their ateliers here.

The late sculptor Yuyu Yang was the first to move in. He chose a site on the Niumin Mountain side of Puli. Hsiao Chin-hsing also found his corner for creative art in Puli, finally building his own place in the Pipa neighborhood. Talk then about the birth of a village for initially 15 artists in an area measuring almost 18 hectares took a serious turn.

The three-story Puli Library used to be the main venue of art exhibits. But provisions were inadequate. Movable screens or partitions were subsequently introduced. Contributions from supporters of the arts made this possible.

Fine arts activities and tourism in Puli came together at the Niu Erh Stone Sculpture Park years ago. Naïve artist Lin Yen lived and worked using different media with great productivity within sight of the visitors for several years. The park became his gallery.

Puli, a dream work setting of many Taiwanese artists, was shattered by a highly destructive earthquake on September .21, 1999. Life, however, goes on for Wang Hao, still busy with his art and education projects. Piled high in his home, a virtual junkyard in Puli, are his work paraphernalia and props. Pasted on several malfunctioning TV sets given by his students are his drawings documenting the human fright when the devastating 9-21 temblor hit Puli a decade ago. Thus, the emotional human drama appears frozen in time.

For sculptor Chen Shi-nian, one particular work of art capturing a most dramatic moment in the last hundred years greets a visitor at his spacious atelier in Puli to this day. This piece is a tribute to the greatness of the rescue workers in the aftermath of the September 21 temblor. Thrown into the confusion then, Chen found the image of residents rushing a survivor pulled out of the debris to where he could receive emergency aid truly unforgettable. His hope then was for his masterpiece to inspire generosity towards survivors who lost their entire families and homes.

Chen, who moved from Huwei to Puli after he married a local girl, knew first-hand the pain and struggle of the whole town and felt it his destiny to create emotional art as his contribution to Puli’s poignant history.

After experiencing a frightening episode, clay artist Wang Zi-hua and his wife Chen Fang-chih decided to dedicate themselves to charity work among senior citizens, who were left completely without families after the September 21 quake. Chen now runs the Peiti Evergreen Village in Puli. Old people living in pre-fabricated homes are encouraged to learn clay art with Wang as their mentor. The famous Paper Dome of Puli, site of the 10th anniversary commemoration of the September 21 tragedy, is where the crafts produced by this community of aging residents are sold from time to time.

To spruce up the Evergreen community, the couple invited their artist friend Liang Kun-ming a few years ago to give the rusting open-air benches a makeover. Liang obliged by painting more than 10 different interpretations of the Chinese zodiac animal Pig on these seats. A sharp-eyed art collector who offered to buy the benches was instantly turned down. The benches which have been transformed into Liang’s colorful art belong to the community and to Puli’s art history.

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