BI YUAN CHENG IS A SEEKER OF THE TRUTH. Not truth in facts, but in feeling; not in evidence, but in experience. His pursuit as an artist is to convey the world as he sees it and share its impact with the viewer, to impart the sense of wonder it brings to him. “I always think if you do art, it has to come from your heart, from your inside world. That makes it really true,” he says.
He was an artist from day one. Born in 1957 in Jinan, China, as a boy of six, Bi could often be found sitting at the side of the road with pencil and paper, sketching the passing cars or bicycles. “It just came naturally,” he says.
Bi Yuan Cheng
His interest and aptitude did not go unnoticed by his mother, a homemaker, or his father, an architect. By the time he was in grade six, Bi was spending every Sunday with a prominent watercolour artist, a friend of his father’s. “I would do a lot of painting during the week, and on Sunday I would go to his house, bring him the paintings, and he would look at each painting,” Bi recalls fondly. He would give feedback to young Bi, who would return home to apply the advice for the next week’s work. Working in the western style, the man had an immense impact on Bi as a teacher and mentor; he died in 1995. “I still miss him so much,” he says.
“He gave me a strong foundation in colour,” Bi continues. “Even today, I still remember his words: ‘You do everything on paper, which is flat. But on paper, you have to make space. Do not think, ‘This is flat,’ think ‘This is space,’ from close to middle to far; you have to create distance on paper—with colour. If you have three trees beside a road, even if the colours are the same [to look at], if you paint it, you cannot paint the same colour for the three trees,” Bi declares. These are essentially the principles of atmospheric perspective, one of the many ways in which colour became Bi’s tool for expression and description.
The Sunday sessions with his teacher expanded to include oil painting, and continued for at least ten years until Bi went to ZiangXi Art University from 1979 to 1983. With stiff competition to get into the painting program, Bi ended up majoring in sculpture and pottery. “I still did a lot of oil painting,” he says, because art education in China places such emphasis on foundational skills. The first full three years of his university art education focused on fundamentals: drawing, colour theory, some three-dimensional work. Western universities typically offer a single foundation year, so it’s hard to imagine such a rigorous art education.
After graduation, Bi worked for Shandong Architectural Company doing sculpture, murals, and design work for city squares. He quickly made a name for himself, winning awards and ascending in prominence to be named a Chinese Art Master by the Province of Shandong in 1987.
His path took a turn when, in 1990, he and his wife decided to go to the University of Alberta to learn English. In Edmonton, they found warm, friendly people and great educational opportunities for their then-four-year-old daughter. Importantly for Bi, though, he found colour. “In China in 1990, the pollution was not as bad as today, but it was still bad,” he explains. “You did not see blue sky very often. Most of the time, the sky was always a little bit grey; everything looked grey. In Edmonton, I said, ‘This is really colourful! Green is green, red is red, blue is blue, clouds are white.’ I said, ‘I can do colour here. This is beautiful. It is a totally different way of looking.’ For me, it was so exciting.” Needless to say, though it was not easy to do at the time, they remained in Canada.
Bi opened his own studio in 1992, painting portraits and commissions, as well as the fields, hills and mountains of Alberta in acrylics and oils. Over the years, he created dozens of murals in Alberta, including at the Edmonton International Airport—and sketched charcoal portraits of untold thousands at his booth at Edmonton’s Klondike Days and the Calgary Stampede.
Twenty years later, Bi moved to Richmond, and he now lives in White Rock. Moving to the coast inevitably had impacts on his art practice. In the past ten or so years, his compositions have loosened up considerably. Combining this tendency with his thorough understanding of colour, and its potential for expression and description, his landscape paintings have become documents of memory and geography—or rather, the memory of geography.
“A Rocky Beach” and “Fog at Moraine Lake” are both acrylic paintings; both convey the sense of space Bi learned to achieve from such a young age. However, the palette of the beach scene—dun-coloured sand, soft sky, steely waters and green shock of sea lettuce—is such that one can practically taste the salty mist. The lake scene plants the viewer squarely in the high, dry Rocky Mountain elevation, where the sharp blue sky is barely filtered through the thin air. What they have in common is an abundance of colour and an economy of technical information: The seaweed is a series of dashes; the deep glacial blue-green of Moraine Lake is expressed in a few dry-brushed lines.
"A Rocky Beach" 24 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Fog at Moraine Lake" 40 x 60 inches, acrylic on canvas
"West Winds" 36 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Cedar Grove" 48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
“Every [piece] has to be a feeling,” he urges; “You have to have the ocean’s feeling.” It’s not just about impressionism, though; other art forms that contain worlds within a few marks are sources of admiration for Bi. A visit to Haida Gwaii left him with great admiration for the local Northwest Coast First Nations artworks. Of the totem poles and other work he saw, he says, “They are just really, really true. Nothing more is needed. You need less detail to give you the most thinking. It’s a very simple thing, but you know there are so many stories inside. That’s really high art.” In homage, he paints some landscape scenes containing totem poles (see this month’s cover).
Achieving this dichotomy, with information and mark in inverse proportion, takes time, thought—and sketching. Bi does work from photographs to a point, but “You don’t want to just follow the photograph, or you will lose something of the truth,” he argues. “Sketches give me the [memory] of the time I was outside, what I was really thinking. You look at the photo, then you do a lot of sketches to bring you back to that first feeling. Once you get that, you are getting close,” he says. “Close to the truth.”
“Coastal Reflections,” featuring new works by Bi Yuan Cheng, runs November 16—27 at The Avenue Gallery, with an Artist Reception on Saturday, November 18, 1-3pm. 2184 Oak Bay Ave. 250-598-2184, theavenuegallery.com.
Having lived in Calgary and attended the occasional Stampede, it is possible that it was Bi Yuan Cheng who Aaren Madden watched in fascination as he sketched his charcoal portraits.
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