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Living life waywardly, on art’s frontier

Shi Di’s “curing artworks” feature cute and personified monkeys, elephants, seals and lions that often appear in a family of three or four.

Shi Di’s “curing artworks” feature cute and personified monkeys, elephants, seals and lions that often appear in a family of three or four.

Shi Di’s “curing artworks” feature cute and personified monkeys, elephants, seals and lions that often appear in a family of three or four.

Shi Di’s “curing artworks” feature cute and personified monkeys, elephants, seals and lions that often appear in a family of three or four.

Shi Di’s “curing artworks” feature cute and personified monkeys, elephants, seals and lions that often appear in a family of three or four.

Shi Di’s “curing artworks” feature cute and personified monkeys, elephants, seals and lions that often appear in a family of three or four.

Shi Di

Shi Di

SHI Di is living life waywardly — a dream envied by many people. Before taking up art, she showed her creativity through gems and crystals.

Graduating from the Gemological Institute of America in California, Shi is one of the few Chinese gemologists recognized in the West as an expert. She later moved on to study European civilization in Paris. But now it is art that draws her.

“China’s top art professors taught me how to paint when I was a little girl. I have no formal art education, but over the years I have studied with teachers who enabled me to look inside myself with confidence and to capture in painting what is unfolding in nature,” she says.

Her works rarely appear at public exhibitions, but have been given as gifts to the Elysee Palace and the US Senate.

Shi’s “Heavenly Water Without Boundary, World Continents With One Origin” series was created especially for the World Expo 2010 Shanghai, and her daunting abstract watercolor painting greeted VIP guests at the China Pavilion in the Shanghai World Expo.

There is a special shimmer in her works, as Shi is extravagant in fusing microcrystals with the “snow from last winter” in her watercolors.

“Please note, I am not adding crystals for visual effect. I experience the energy and life of the microcrystals while painting, and they are integral to my work,” she explains.

Shi’s work integrates ink-wash, bright colors and luminous lusters. The ink-wash is rooted in her Chinese culture background, the bright colors come from her illumination about nature, while the luminosity of crystals comes from her constant “dialogue” with gems and cosmos.

Hailing from Zhejiang Province and born into a high-ranking official’s family, Shi hates to be treated like “a princess only restricted into her own small world.” She endeavors to find a “bigger world” through a “big angle.”

Now after several years of silence, Shi is back with a combination of art, science and psychology.

The project — the First International Arts & Science & Psychology Interactive Experience Campus Exhibition — was recently launched at Hangzhou Yinhu Experimental High School, focusing on the mental health of Chinese students from primary to high school.

It is organized by the China Committee of UNESCO’s International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festival and Folk Arts and the Physical and Joint Laboratory of Mental Health at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“Of course, I’m not a psychologist,” Shi says. “I just want to help the children recall the origin of their happiness at an infant stage, which I call it a ‘primitive optimistic initiative’ that might later help them face any challenge or depression in the future.”

Based on art and some psychological knowledge she acquired, Shi tries to dig out such “primitive optimistic initiative” from the people she interviewed.

She stresses the importance of art in psychological healing. “Sometimes people are not willing to share the deepest thing inside, but when I show them some of my paintings and talk with them about art, they feel relaxed and comfortable.”

Shi has created some “curing artworks” that are thoroughly different from her early abstract watercolors filled with sunlight, rain, dew, mist, water and rosy clouds. Cute and personified monkeys, elephants, seals and lions appear in her “healing” works. They often appear in a family of three or four in a warm background.

“My art is serving as a bridge, as some people don’t want to look back on their past and refuse to talk with the psychologists,” she explains.

Q: What initiated your interest in psychology?

A: Frankly, it’s because of my son. I remember when he was 7 or 8, he entered the so-called “psychological inversion period.”

It was so difficult for me to communicate with him. He kept asking me why he must go to school every day and why some people around him were not perfect. He even wanted to quit school. I didn’t know how to convince him, neither did I know how to help him.

But the role of a caring mother made me bravely “delve” into the sea of psychology. I participated in many training courses in the United States, Hong Kong and Singapore, and I also benefitted from what I had learnt.

Q: So in which way did you benefit from learning psychology?

A: Today, too many people have psychological problems, and sometimes it’s because our heart is “polluted” and our cells “crying.”

I hate to hear people talking about money all the time. It is only something extraneous to one’s life. What is more important is to have a peaceful and grateful heart. We need to purify our heart and mind.

Through the learning process, I know how to control my emotions and better understand the four things — time, space, identity and boundary.

I myself have four identities — mother, daughter, wife and myself as an artist. I need to switch among each identity flexibly every day under different space and time. For example, the walking distance from my home to my studio is about five minutes. When I leave home, I see flowers and trees along the road. So through this five-minute walk, I immediately prepare myself to be an artist.

Q: Why did you choose Hangzhou Yinhu Experimental Middle School as the start of your new project?

A: Because my son studied here for one year, and I got along well with the teachers and staff here. Just look around, and you will find Yinhu is surrounded by mountains, trees and rivers.

Don’t you think the geographic location is a plus that would enable the students to open their hearts to nature. Another reason is that this is one of the places where I grew up.

Q: The paintings you’ve created for your psychological project are a striking contrast with your previous works. It’s always said that “the toughest thing is to draw like a child.” But you did it. How?

A: I feel happy that many people like these works which, frankly speaking, are totally beyond my expectation.

In the past, I thought these paintings are too naïve, so I felt a bit embarrassed to show them to others.

But now I find them quite useful to approach the children. I have interviewed thousands of them and asked the same question: “What was the happiest moment in your earliest memory?” or “What’s your favorite color?” Most of the answer is a hug from their mother or father, or the tranquil moment of a family gathering.

I know today Chinese parents spend much money on study, toys and clothing for their children, but they rarely ask “what do you really want?”

In my eyes, companionship is so critical for one’s childhood. Through this project, I want to evoke the innocence from their heart. For me, art is not awakened when one enters an art academy, but earlier in a child’s heart.

Q: What’s the most relaxing moment in your spare time?

A: Meditating. Don’t think of me as a social animal. I spend most of the day in my studio. Sometimes I can sit for hours and let my thoughts float free.

Q: What does art mean to you?

A: Painting makes me happy. There are no rigid rules, no restrictions on my work. Many people ask me why I spray some of the gem powders on my works. It’s not a show-off.

For me, they are like living creatures filled with their own feelings. Gems and the origin of the Earth always fascinate me. Although gems started to grow millions of years ago, yet at this moment it is melting into my life and growing with me.

Also art enables me to ponder the permanent question of life and death. Of course, there are different ways for people to offset the threat of death via different religions. For me, art is my religion. When I was little, I was drawn to the existence of the Black Hole. Sometimes I imagined that I was a tiny dust mote in the cosmos. No one knows what’s at the end of the Black Hole, but I may fulfill my pass through art.

Q: What’s your plans in the future?

A: I want to establish my arts & science & psychology school and help more children, teachers and parents in China. Now I am working on the possibility of opening one in Shanghai.

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