Her fascination with the only member of the genus Nipponia capture these beauties on canvas, write Huo Yan and Li Yang.
Artists in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, who know Yan Zi usually introduce her somewhat like this: O, she belongs to no circle of oil painters in the city ... she is unique, quiet.
That's also exactly how Yan describes her favorite model, muse, inspiration, call it what you will. The crested ibis, an endangered "bird of paradise", as she calls it, are found in the wild only in the southern part of Shaanxi today.
Yan still remembers her first encounter with the bird at the foot of Qinling Mountains years ago while she was engrossed in capturing the landscape on the canvas: "I saw two unique big white birds flying to and fro. They had long red beaks, and the tips of their tails and wings also radiated red luster under the sun."
"I had painted peacocks and cranes before ... but not seen an elegant a bird as the crested ibis. Love for beauty and professional impulse have inspired me to walk into the world of this special bird", she says.
From then on, she has spent a lot of her spare time in the mountains painting the birds. Her love for the bird once led to a cliff where she slipped and fell down, breaking one leg and hurting an eardrum, which has damaged her hearing permanently. But she says a quieter world saves her a lot of time that, otherwise, would be squandered on social engagement.
What makes the crested ibis special to Yan is not only its beauty but also the local people's emotional attachment to it, not to mention their belief that it is an "auspicious and psychic" creature.
Almost all residents in Huayang, Yangxian county of Hanzhong city, now the core range of the crested ibis, where Yan often captures them on paper or canvas, adore it. Some senior citizens even call the bird the "infinitely merciful Bodhisattva".
The range of the crested ibis shrunk from the vast expanse of East Asia in the late 19th century to only the mountains in Yangxian in the late 1970s. The last wild crested ibis in Japan died in 2003, and the only bird in the genus Nipponia was thought to be extinct even in China. However, thanks to the government's support for captive breeding, the number of crested ibis in the wild has increased from just seven nearly 40 years ago to more than 1,500 in Shaanxi, Henan and Zhejiang provinces today - with another 500 in the breeding centers in Shaanxi.
When Yan paints the birds in the open where they fly, glide, rest and nestle not far from her, she can feel them communicating with her on the emotional and spiritual level.
An employee of a State-owned electricity company, Yan spends almost all her weekends painting. Her home is like a studio, full of her works, both finished and unfinished.
She calls the crested ibis a "bird of paradise" because that's how people in Russia call it. The daughter of a Russian father and Chinese mother, Yan learned oil painting from her father's uncle, a student of socialist realist painter Konstantin Maksimov, in St Petersburg from the age of 5 to 14. Her Russian name is Natasha Seryozha.