A therapeutic tonic to overcome disabilities

Liu Xiaolin
For artist Liu Yi, art was his magic pill in those bed-ridden teenage years.
Liu Xiaolin

Podcast EP7

Though physically challenged, artist Liu Yi has lived a profound spiritual life since he was a kid thanks to art. Growing up, he was surrounded by a variety of drawing paper and colored pencils.

A therapeutic tonic to overcome disabilities
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Chinese artist Liu Yi poses, with a walking stick, in front of a mural of his mobile painting.

For artist Liu Yi, art was his magic pill in those bed-ridden teenage years.

Born congenitally malformed, Liu had his first surgery when he was 6 months old at Shanghai's Xinhua Hospital. Since then, he undertook countless corrective operations to regain mobility until the age of 15. Today, there are 23 visible scars on his body.

Though physically challenged, Liu has lived a profound spiritual life since he was a kid thanks to art. Growing up, he was surrounded by a variety of drawing paper and colored pencils.

Every week, his mother bought him children's picture magazines, from which he sketched copies of cartoon characters, such as his favorite Black Cat Detective.

"Art is so ideal and adorable," Liu said from his studio at M50. "Art can unfold all those things you cannot realize in real life. How can it not be healing?"

The 40-year-old now teaches public art at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts. Along with teaching, he has devoted the past six years to mobile paintings, which he regularly posts on WeChat Moments and also homepage of his studio, 61creative.

A therapeutic tonic to overcome disabilities
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Artist Liu Yi

Q: How did your story with art begin?

A: It all happened so naturally. I was born congenitally malformed. My mother said I looked like a ball, my legs wrapping around my body. I suffered from severe deformities, including a dislocated hip joint, among many others. At 6 months old, I had my first corrective surgery at Xinhua Hospital. The hospital is like a second home to me. Since then, I had countless surgeries until the summer I entered Shanghai Arts & Crafts College. I often compare it to a beam and column. Once you find it crooked, you have to cut off certain parts and have it reassembled, just like woodwork.

Since I couldn't walk at that time, my parents tossed me various coloring pens and paper to play with. As a kid, I had a plentiful supply (of art tools), although my parents aren't artists and know nothing about art. In such a world, I took it full play. It nurtured me, and I was always greatly encouraged whenever I drew something. It made me feel good and confident. Ever since I was a kid, my father always told me to live on myself. I think it's amazing to make a living doing something you love. That's what I'm telling my students today.

Q: What's the best thing about art?

A: Art has healed me ever since I was a kid. All those impossibilities in real life, art can make happen. That's the most powerful and best thing about art – something can be given to all of us.

I'm almost 40 today. I'm facing more and more difficulties, and as time grows, my agony grows as well. All the challenges and hardships will surely appear in my artworks. But not too much, and I hope there won't be that much. I now paint every day, and keep posting the works on WeChat Moments once completed, through which my friends can learn about my daily life.

A therapeutic tonic to overcome disabilities
Courtesy of Liu Yi

A mobile painting by Liu Yi

Q: Is it a kind of journal?

A: Some critics have called it visual journal. I don't know, perhaps. Time becomes vague once I paint. It becomes a means for me to create whenever and wherever, and it makes me feel awesome. Every time I paint, when my fingers touch and glide on the small screen, I pretty much enjoy being alone with myself.

Q: Can painting help you forget the pain?

A: When it hurts, it really hurts. But afterward, I just want to unfold the happiness. To this day, it grows more and more clear to me that pain does not go away. It's always there, and there's no way to bury it. We grow up with so much pain in our lives, but with so much joy as well. How to maximize the happiness? I think it's important to accept. The best thing about my parents is they accepted, and then they knew how to face it. It's the same with me here. I'm aware that there will be different pains and challenges in the future, but I learned and am still learning how to cope with it.

A therapeutic tonic to overcome disabilities

A mobile painting by Liu Yi

Q: It seems you never avoid talking about your body.

A: It's because I accepted it. It's all normal. It's normal to feel pain; it's normal to be born into what I was at birth – that's also a human being. I just looked different (at that time); we all look different.

Quite a few of my mobile paintings are about my body and my treatments. In 2017, I suffered from spondylolisthesis, which landed me in a wheelchair. Before that, I'd been pushing myself to keep walking on my own. Then out of the blue, my back hurt so badly that I couldn't even get up. The doctor suggested I play it safe and use a wheelchair. I was quite depressed for a long while, because I never saw it coming. I always knew I would be in a wheelchair a bit earlier than others, I just never thought it would be so soon. It struck me like a blow.

Q: Did painting help?

A: Yes, absolutely. Fortunately, I know how to paint, and I can paint things (on cellphone) every day. There are a dozen scenarios for my mobile painting. Firstly, I paint about something that interests me, which is basically sketching. Secondly, I run into objects, landscapes or places that impress me that I cannot capture on site. Then I put them down in paintings later based on memories. One more thing is instant creation. I add my imagination into impressive scenes, and express my pain or joy with colors and graphs.

A therapeutic tonic to overcome disabilities

A mobile painting by Liu Yi

Q: Did you somehow loosen up after painting?

A: I surely did. Many of my paintings are done in that way. Sometimes in treatment, the pain was killing me so I started painting, and it died down once I finished. Psychologically, I think the pain transformed. For example, once on this very sofa, my waist hurt again. I could do nothing but lean back pretty straight. Then I drew a painting of me reclining on the sofa, straight as a ramrod. Once done, the pain seemed to shift to my cellphone. (Laughs.)

I think it all has something to do with mentality. Earlier, I was invited to a talk at an exhibition opening, and we were talking about "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry. We all read the story in school. The old artist painted a leaf for the sick girl. In the end, the old man died but the leaf remained. What is it?

Q: A solace, perhaps?

A: Fact is, a piece of painting, a good artwork can comfort people, offer mental consolation. That is art as therapy. How lovely! When we spoke of it that day, it even brought tears to our eyes.

A therapeutic tonic to overcome disabilities

A great number of Liu Yi's mobile paintings are about his body and physical therapy.

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