Guo Feng-Yi was an ordinary retired woman in poor health, but she inspired the people around her with quiet dignity. In the face of intense physical pain from her rheumatoid arthritis, she practiced qigong, took up painting and reordered her life along simple, harmonious lines. Her dedication eventually led to physical and mental stability, and she achieved peace in the healing space she had worked so hard to create. She died on January 5, 2010, after achieving international recognition and acclaim for the art that began as a humble form of personal therapy. This interview is with her son, Shi Qiang.
Wu Chen Did your mother ever explain to you why she painted?
Shi Qiang No, she didn’t mention it on purpose. I found out gradually. She didn’t know how to paint, but she started when she began to practice qigong as a way to alleviate her illness. She had severe rheumatoid arthritis, so we hadn’t used an electric fan or bamboo mattress at home for almost 10 years. She would wear winter jackets in the summer and couldn’t get warm. Her health improved after she started to paint, and we felt very happy for her. She was very focused when she was drawing, and enjoyed it a lot. It takes time and energy to paint, and she always used the time in between household chores to do it. Now, looking back, it must have been really hard for her.
WC When did her work first start to be appreciated by the public?
SQ It’s hard to tell. People started talking about my mother’s paintings around 1989 or 1990, and her work was exhibited at several shows in Xi’an. A contemporary female artist from Taiwan, Cai Yu, called them “smart art”. but in my opinion, her works were first presented to the world at Lu Jie’s exhibition The Longmarch Project in Lugu Lake, Yunnan province. You could say that it was Lu who scouted my mother’s talent, and I’d love to show my appreciation to him on her behalf.
WC How did the change in role, between an ordinary person and an “artist”, affect your mother?
SQ It didn’t matter to my mother whether she was considered an “artist” or not. Also, she didn’t start painting out of any real interest in art. For her, painting was a physical and spiritual therapy. As a result of her painting, her health improved, so we figured it was a good thing for her.
This piece depicts Lao-Tzu, teh founder of Taoism, as a God
WC She took part in many major exhibitions both in and out of China after 2002. Did she ever paint works for specific exhibitions?
SQ Of course she did, in Shenzhen, Yokohama, Japan and Lugu Lake, and all were improvised. She just painted whatever she felt comfortable to paint. Lu Jie had said that her work would be popular with foreigners, but she didn’t paint for the sake of it; she just painted for her own interest.
WC Do you like her paintings?
SQ I’m ashamed to say so, but I didn’t start liking her paintings until 2007. Although the whole family loves her, we didn’t really understand her, not to mention her work. They are not mere paintings – there’s a lot more going on in them. Not a lot of people can understand her work in China. She always thought that Lu Jie was the one who understood her paintings the best, and that Fei Da-Wei could appreciate her drawings. They had in-depth conversations many times, and shared the same thoughts on many things.
WC Before she began to be promoted by curators, had your family ever encouraged your mother to exhibit her paintings?
SQ She made up her mind about her own work, and as long as she was happy, we never interfered. I only joined in on the exhibition side after 2008, because her health was not good at the time, and she needed someone to help out. We didn’t interfere, whether she gave away her paintings or sold them.
WC Will you sell you mother’s works? Have you ever thought about holding a retrospective for her?
SQ We kept her work up after she passed away, and we will not sell it. We are all doing fine, so we don’t need to sell our mother’s art for money. She had donated more than 100 of her paintings to Collection de L’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, and they might hold a solo exhibition for her. The person who’s in charge of the gallery visited China last October and talked about the possibility. There are many other organisations that want to co-operate with us right now, and we will consider the possibilities carefully. We might work with Collection de l’Art Brut on an exhibition. §
Text and images courtesy Art World