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Artist shows garbage is not rubbish

Zhao spruces up the wall in her studio with one of her own paintings. China Daily

Discarded items take on a fresh life under the transformative skill of a woman who knows the value of waste, Wang        Qian reports.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This is a well-known phrase but for Zhao Xiaoli, it is also a guide to her professional life as she makes art out of garbage.

A variety of recycled objects, including a wooden door, a chair with one leg missing, an old television, a discarded washboard, a broken guitar, plastic bottles and a vintage thermos flask, have provided a canvas of inspiration for Zhao.

A collection of art pieces, including many she created herself out of used items,
decorates a corner of her studio. China Daily

“Art should serve the public, who needs us to think outside the box. Through the form of art, the used items can be redefined,” says the 30-year-old.

Zhao’s interest in rubbish is known by many people, even by sanitary workers near her studio in Beijing. When anyone in her community throws furniture out, like a door or a chair, Zhao is always the first to know.

Call it trash, but for Zhao, it can be a work of art; the discarded items can be transformed.

In a 30-second video posted in December on micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo, Zhao is seen recycling a wooden door. After smoothing its surface, she sweeps a brush in an apparently wild style and allows the paint to splatter on the vertical board. Later, her reproduction of American painter Charles Courtney Curran’s By the Lily Pond appears on the door, as if by magic.

The clip has been viewed over a million times on the platform, with her account attracting more than 524,000 followers.

Her account on the video-sharing platform, Douyin, has garnered nearly 8.5 million followers.

For Zhao, it seems that anything can be her canvas. Last year, a coffee store she often visited was closed and the owner gave her a broken guitar. She created an oil painting which combined works by two Dutch masters, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer and Wheat Field with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh.

When someone threw out a chair with one broken leg last year, Zhao took it. After cleaning, she emptied a bottle of blue paint onto the surface of the chair and transformed it into Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The recreated art piece bore the inscription: “Loving Vincent. Sadness will last forever”.

Artist Zhao Xiaoli poses beside her artwork at her studio in Beijing. China Daily

With the masterful stroke of her “magic pen”, a vintage wooden laundry washboard can be the perfect “canvas” for a landscape oil painting. With a full moon on the lake, the rungs have been painted as waves reflecting the moonlight.

Many viewers have been amazed by her imagination, saying that “the piece invites people to look at used items differently”. Some, in good humour, said: “It is the most valuable and beautiful washboard ever seen”.

“Beauty is everywhere. Anything can be changed into a work of art,” Zhao says, adding that old items can be transformed into something new with a little creativity.

From a family of artists in Xiamen, Fujian province, Zhao started painting at the age of 15 and knew from that time it would be her career. She graduated with an art degree from a university in Nanjing, Jiangsu province then became an illustrator and opened a studio in Beijing.

She learned painting with Ukrainian painter Mykhailo Guida, who is well-known for his portraits. Art critic and curator Lu Rongzhi also influenced her a lot.

“Painting is the focus of my life, which is my work and dream,” Zhao says.

In her words, she is a “painter energised by an engine”; she has few needs nor time to go out to socialise. Besides painting on trash, Zhao also paints on canvas.

In May, she went to the Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture of Sichuan province to teach painting at the Siyuan Experimental School for a week as a volunteer teacher. The school has only one art teacher for its 49 classes.

Zhao’s influence is not limited to China. Usually in her videos, she barely says anything and carries herself with a degree of sternness. Despite this, she has attracted more than 500,000 followers for her Instagram account which she created in January.

“With art, I understand the world. It heals my wounds and my grief is released and heard via painting. It enriches my love of nature and hope for the future and it rids me of superficial prejudices,” Zhao shares on her Sina Weibo account.

“Art empowers me to break bounds and go one better, and it opens my eyes to find more beauty around me. Meanwhile, my work also gets viewers inspired and offers comfort.”

Zhao plans to go to Europe for a master’s degree in fine arts and to keep reading, holding exhibitions and publishing new books. Last year, she released a book that teaches beginners how to get started with oil painting.

“For an artist, the most satisfying work will always be the next,” Zhao says with a smile. China Daily

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