Knelt over bright cherry hardwood, 42-year-old Tingqun Zhang unfolded a 20-foot canvas over his living room floor.
Slightly frayed edges frame the abstract piece while streaks of yellow, orange and green acrylic paint compromise for space in the foreground. Blots of blue submit to black and gray, and a curious pink peeked through occasionally.
“Others think it is quite simple at first glance,” he said.
Every day, Zhang invites old friends over to drink tea at his house. The activity helps him stay connected with his native China, he said.
Born to a folk carpenter in the coastal province of Fujian, China, the Gainesville-based artist established himself in art spaces through Chinese calligraphy brushes and oil paintings.
He did not become an artist for the money, he said.
“Normally in China, parents don’t encourage children to pursue art,” said Zhang.
He is grateful for his father who was supportive of his artistic pursuits, he said.
Zhang graduated from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 2002. He turned toward Gainesville for its quiet and peaceful atmosphere several decades later and 8,000 miles from Fujian.
“I wish there were more artists that came to Gainesville,” he said. “It’s a good place to create.”
Zhang’s use of abstract imagery may seem effortless, however his creation process can be grueling.
“If you ask me to draw another one, I can’t draw it because it is very, very difficult,” he said. “It needs many things, needs your skills, requires you to persist, requires you to have a certain feeling in it.”
After a second glance the canvas’ abstract nature dissipates and symbols reveal themselves. Beyond the pigment were shapes: a stitched dove, a teardrop, a portrait and letters chosen seemingly at random. But, much like its creation process, deciphering it requires you to persist.
Zhang does not speak much English. Sheng Dai, a 23-year-old UF graduate serves as a translator for Zhang.
“The first impression of his current work is that it is very abstract,” Dai said.
His work speaks to the barrier between languages. He believes language limits people’s vision and art should have no borders, Zhang said.
“He wants to be a human artist,” said Dai. “He wants his work to be inspiring for all mankind. Internationalism is definitely one of the most significant issues of his work.”
All communication barriers fade when people admire Zhang’s work; a testament to art’s role as a universal language.
As a professional artist who constantly travels for work, he considers himself a civilian of the world and is thus concerned with issues of globalization and communication through art, he said.
His art aims to inspire those around the globe and reduce conflict between countries and cultures.
Industrialization is a central theme for much of his work. One piece, “the construction of china,Tian an men Painting” shows traditional Chinese porcelain bowls juxtaposed with construction tower cranes.
While Zhang’s Chinese heritage is present throughout much of his work, it may be hard to decipher at first due to their abstract and amorphous nature.
Zhang turned to his heritage for inspiration and has embraced what Gainesville’s art scene has to show. Zhang walked through the ceramics wing of the Harn Museum of Art speaking of terracotta pots with Eric Segal, director of education at the Museum.
The men drifted between different exhibits while Segal explained the Harn’s role in educating its local community.
“Some [arts] are deeply embedded in their local cultures while others are engaged in global conversations,” Segal said. “There’s really no one right way to do art.”
Zhang stopped often, and admired the works. He pulled out his phone and presented his own collection as he made comparisons to the museum’s pieces. Zhang alluded to donating some of his work in the future and after some hours the men parted ways.
Despite international achievement, Zhang is quick to emphasize success is subjective.
“People say my work sucks. I say it doesn't matter. I think I suck as well,” he said jokingly. “Because I do what I love, I feel successful.”
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