Chen Xiangdong works on a Zen painting at his studio.
When the derelict West Bund area was undergoing a transformation from slums to Shanghai's newest cultural hub, Chen Xiangdong was among the first a decade ago to seize new horizons.
He set up his 90-square-meter King of Miao Art Studio in the M50 Art Space on Moganshan Road. It mostly displays Chen's Zen and Chinese ink Buddhism paintings.
"It's my work studio, my exhibition room and partly my home," says the 48-year-old painter, who is wearing a traditional Chinese silk jacket and speaks in a modulated voice tinged with piousness and an occasional smile.
An exhibition of Chen's works, entitled "Beauty of Zen," is currently on show at the Xinyun Art Gallery on Zhongchun Road in Minhang District, an art house named after a famous Taiwanese Buddhist master.
Self-taught without any professional training, Chen has trod a twisting road to fame.
He was born into a Miao ethnic minority family deep in the mountains of Guizhou Province. As a child, he roamed in forestland, pranced in moonlight, talked with plants, sang to little birds and drew everything he saw around him.
"Mother nature nourished and inspired me," he says, "and the ancient Miao culture and history influenced and enriched me."
In the early 1990s, Chen left his rural roots and headed to the metropolis of Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, paint brush in hand. He quickly found he could make easy money doing commercial painting, mostly copying world-famous art for wealthy clients.
His talent attracted a steady flow of European orders, and much of what he painted were sold abroad, adorning affluent homes and corporate lounges.
Within seven years, he had amassed quite a fortune, but he began to have doubts about the course he was following.
"I was bored and asking myself: 'Do you want to do real art creation'?" Chen says, recalling the dawn of the new millennium.
The answer was "yes," so he packed his bags and headed to Shanghai in 2002. He lived in the Shanghai Painters' Village on Wending Road and participated that same year in the Shanghai Art Fair. In 2003, Chen set up King of Miao Art Studio and never looked back.
"The area at that time was a mess, with dusty old warehouses and smoky chimneys," Chen recalls.
It was tough at first, but prospects improved as the years rolled on. Chen's paintings themed around his hometown and the Miao culture began catching the attention of art buyers.
At the same time, Chen found religion.
"It's all destiny," he says. "I met Buddha, who enlightened and guided me, and brought me inner peace."<
Chen did meditation, prayed, learned sutra, quit alcohol and stopped eating meat. He also embarked on doing good deeds for others.
His religious beliefs inspired his paintings. "Just as religion can reach deep into one's heart, a good art piece should also resonate with people and touch their souls," he says.
His subject matter shifted to Zen and Buddhism. After painting with rich-colored oils for 24 years, Chen found that using Chinese ink and brushes helped him better express his thoughts.
He showed his works to professionals from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and they encouraged him to continue.
"The paintings are touching, they said," Chen explains. "I guess it's because I paint with my heart and Buddhist sincerity."
The ink painting entitled "Asking for the Truth" depicts a scene of Confucius (551-478 BC) taking pious instruction from Taoism founder Laozi (571-471 BC). The two men sit on the two sides of the Eight Diagrams, talking about philosophy, the universe and truth.