Retired shipping officer helps mariners and himself through arts practice

Yang Yang
Retired China COSCO Shipping officer finds there is a country for old men after all, through his arts practice, including painting on leaf veins and hinged walnuts.
Yang Yang
Retired shipping officer helps mariners and himself through arts practice
Ti Gong

Chen Jianhua's leaf vein painting inspired by a Russian artwork

Chen Jianhua, a retired disciplinary supervision officer with China COSCO Shipping, was a guardian of mariners with both his legal knowledge and art achievements while in his post. After his retirement, Chen further found new niches in leaf vein painting and walnut miniature painting.

"Art guides me to practice being good," said the 75-year-old retiree, whose love of painting can be traced back to his kindergarten years.

Chen enrolled in January 1974 into the then Shanghai Marine Administration Bureau, now China COSCO Shipping after the company's restructuring. He was at first responsible for publicity, and took on disciplinary supervision as well later.

Mariners who went offshore for long stretches were not always so happy in their marriages.

"The mariners worked hard, sometimes away on a sea voyage for a half or an entire year," Chen said. "They led a thrifty life and saved every penny they could for their families. Each time when the ship was about to dock on the Huangpu River, they immediately phoned home to tell of their arrival."

Long separations could cause problems and joyful reunions be replaced by tears when some wives filed for a divorce. Chen and his team then helped the seamen cope legally with the resulting conflict.

"The crew would feel exuberant in their first month on deck, but about six months later, all kinds of issues popped up as boredom started to engulf them. Then we thought about painting, calligraphy, sports and even ship modeling to help them find interests," Chen said.

Retired shipping officer helps mariners and himself through arts practice
Ti Gong

A miniature boat modeling Chen Jianhua made inside a glass bottle

Art will 'survive me'

Chen keeps several folders on his bookshelf. Inside them the left pages are some logbook clips and the right contain his leaf vein paintings.

By the time of his retirement, his oil paintings hung on every possible space on the walls of his home.

"I was thinking about other media that occupy less space to practice fine arts," Chen said. "Then it happened that my son brought back some linden leaves from a trip to Nepal."

It dawned on him that he could paint on veins of the leaves.

"We use strong alkali to first rid the mesophyll (tissue layer) while keeping the leaf veins," he said.

When Buddhism was introduced from India to China about the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), leaf vein paintings, especially on linden leaves bearing scriptures and Buddhism figures, spread along with it. Literati and scholars then followed suit to paint flowers, fruit and other life subjects on leaf veins. The art form almost went extinct during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and was lost in the contemporary era, according to Chen.

"Back in 2015, there were almost no guides online on how to do a leaf vein painting. I explored myself while practicing: using acrylic paints to pave the bottom layer; to preserve some texture of the veins, attaching color only to some parts of a leaf; using a hoop made of polycarbonate glass similar to an embroidery frame to hold the leaf; and a 55 degrees Celsius heating pad, originally for warming a cup of tea, is used for drying the painting."

Leaves of diverse kinds – linden, magnolia and Rudraksha – had been used by Chen to hold portrayals of historic figures of China, gods and goddesses, Russian or Western oil painting figures, and even insects. Up until now, he has created more than 1,000 leaf vein paintings.

Last year, it occurred to him he could also paint miniature three-dimensional paintings inside walnut shells.

Retired shipping officer helps mariners and himself through arts practice
Ti Gong

A 3D walnut shell painting by Chen Jianhua

Chen bent a nail and attached copper wires around it, then drilled holes on the shells to create a hinge, so people were able to fold and unfold his walnut shell paintings like a pocket watch.

Among his walnut shell painting works are Jan Vermeer's "Kitchen Maid" and "Girl with a Pearl Earring," and Van Gogh's "Vincent Bedroom in Arles" and "Sunflowers."

"The different art forms I am practicing all have their unique charm, and it might also be that they are a way to express my feelings," said the retired officer.

"I was self-taught, but all the albums of renowned painters and books of theory on painting are my teachers.

"The arts are 'my country for an old man.' Life is short. I hope some good things I am doing now will survive me," he added.

Retired shipping officer helps mariners and himself through arts practice
Yang Yang / SHINE

After his retirement, Chen Jianhua further found new niches in leaf vein painting and walnut miniature painting.

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