Farmer Artist Paints Ways out of Poverty
Zhang Gongmei, who has spent half a lifetime working tirelessly in the fields, relied on a paintbrush to support her son through high school.
The 50-year-old former farmer lives in Xiaohe Village, a mountainous area on the provincial border between Hunan and Jiangxi, surrounded by stunning landscape as well as mountains on three sides.
"Trapped at endless peaks, even a veteran farmer with the sharpest hoe can hardly harvest much income," Zhang said. "I used to grow soybeans, but only found I lost up to 30,000 yuan (about 4,220 U.S. dollars) in the end, as underdeveloped transportation in the mountains made it hard to sell my produce."
To take care of her ill husband and school-age children, Zhang gave up the idea of working out of the mountains. Her family was listed as a poverty-plagued household in 2014, registering a per capita net income of less than 3,000 yuan a year.
A magnificent turnaround was ushered in 2016 when local authorities introduced several studios to Xiaohe Village to teach farmers how to use paintbrushes to earn a living, and Zhang was among the first batch of residents who put down hoes to pick up brushes.
"I was at a total loss at first and didn't even know how to hold a brush," she said. "In hesitation, the pigment had already dripped from the tip, but my mind was still as blank as the paper."
According to Zhang, concepts that the teachers taught such as layers, lines and composition overwhelmed her, as if they were speaking in a foreign language.
"The teacher taught us hand in hand to draw the base map and lines," she said, adding that after three months of hard practice, she could finish a landscape painting independently.
"There was a monthly subsidy of 1,500 yuan during the training phase and after that, we could earn more than 3,000 yuan working as a painter," Zhang said. "The more we paint, the more we earn. Sometimes, I can draw nearly 20 pictures a day, with each bringing over 10 yuan."
"In this way, I 'painted' out my son's high school expenses one by one," she said.
Since 2016, the art studios in Xiaohe Village have cultivated more than 460 painters like Zhang, with products including landscape paintings and oil paintings sold to countries such as Japan and the Republic of Korea, raking in an output value of over 20 million yuan last year.
Zhang successfully bid farewell to poverty in 2018 but that did not stop her from pursuing the "beautiful business." Earlier this year, she started to learn creative oil paintings in another studio, a genre with a wider market.
"I'm not worried at all this time. I'm confident that I can do it well," Zhang said.
Sitting next to Zhang is 34-year-old painter Lin Guichun, a former housewife who said the job helped her achieve her childhood dream. "I loved painting since I was a child, but the heavy burden in my family had restricted me from learning any art."
The paintbrush seemed to have opened Lin a new chapter of life. "Being in the countryside, we can also count on the 'beautiful business' to shake off poverty."