Raise the bamboo curtain

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am

For centuries bamboo has fascinated Chinese ink artists with not only its physical beauty and elegance but also what it symbolises: strength, grace and longevity. But Nancy Wong Lai-sze has a more literal take on her favourite subject.

The artist has a thick binder of research on the plant with page after page of photographs and charts containing information on different bamboo species including their maximum lengths, diameters, living temperature and leaf sizes.

'Bamboo is a Chinese cultural icon. I need to be as accurate as possible to capture the very specific character of each of them ... they are all one-of-a-kind,' says the 28-year-old former graphic designer.

In her latest solo exhibition running at Zee Stone Gallery, Wong presents 28 pieces that highlight the characteristics of various exotic bamboo species. Using acrylic and oil, Wong accentuates the plant's vibrant colours and contrasting shades. Her accurate depictions come from the meticulous research she conducted on more than 1,000 bamboo species.

On Hong Kong Island she found 17 varieties at the Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Central and seven others while hiking on the Peak. Bamboo has always been an important subject in Wong's work since she first studied Chinese painting at the age of nine.

'It never occurred to me that bamboo could be so different. I was amazed by all those absurd structures, stunning colours and even mottled schemes resembling the skins of leopards or snakes,' says Wong.

Painting every day for more than six hours, Wong took six months to finish the 28 works on show. 'I've never been happier than during that six months. Every time I finished one piece, I could not wait to start the next,' she says.

Wong studied communication design at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Canada. Upon graduation in 2002, she returned to Hong Kong to work as a graphic artist. Because of her busy day job Wong had to give up painting until two years ago, when a friend asked her to paint a mural at a centre for autistic children.

After that project Wong decided to quit her job. To concentrate on her painting she moved out of her brother's Mid-Levels home to live and work in a studio flat in Kennedy Town. It was the first time she had lived by herself and the experience was not easy.

'It was a tough time for living but a great time for learning to become an artist and a real grown-up,' says Wong.

Having finished the bamboo series in May, Wong had to find a gallery that would be interested in showing her work.

But after just a one-day search, Zee Stone took Wong under its wings making her the first Hong Kong Chinese artist the gallery, which opened in 1991, had represented.

'I was working in the gallery one quiet Sunday afternoon when Nancy walked in, unannounced, and proposed an exhibition of her paintings. Such self-confidence,' says Zee Stone's Shaun Kelly.

Wong thinks the best part of painting is that it helps her better understand herself.

'I can see the real me when I paint,' she says. 'Although I could always express myself in the design jobs I used to do, my creativity was constrained by fashion and trends. I am so glad that now people really understand and appreciate what I, as an artist, really care about.'

Hidden Beauty & Double Happiness - Bamboos of the World, Zee Stone Gallery, 43-55 Wyndham St, Central. Inquiries: 2810 5895. Ends Dec 20