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Enigmatic Ink: Transforming Cosmic Mysteries into Universal Narratives

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Engaging with the art of Taiwanese artist Sha Ching-Hwa is like embarking on a whimsical journey through boundless universes. Within his creative paintings, time becomes frozen, and thoughts can wander freely.

Sha likens beginning a new artwork to setting sail on an uncharted adventure, much like the beloved fictional explorer Sinbad the Sailor, whose voyages often involve encountering mythical creatures and supernatural phenomena. Unconstrained by predetermined outcomes, Sha’s creative process thrives on variables and uncertainties. It’s within these moments—uncertain yet exhilarating—that he finds his greatest inspiration to enter those unexplored imaginative realms.

In Sha’s universe, enigmatic islands float among rainbow-draped clouds and charming cottages nestle among lush greenery. Massive boulders are adorned with countless millennium-worn cavities, each appearing as a portal to a new universe. At times, these myriad cavities undergo a mysterious metamorphosis, turning majestic mountains into a complex network of interconnected fantasy gears, evoking the indelible imprints left by the relentless march of time.

In Sha Ching-Hwa’s painting Mountain and Water, Heart’s Abode, a tranquil rural landscape, resembling both an island and a mountain, hovers in the air. The cascading waterfalls on the high mountains, the blooming flowers, and the warmly lit cottage depict the artist’s fond childhood memories of home in a dreamlike setting.

A lasting tribute

From an early age, Sha’s imagination served as his creative playground. As a child, the water stains he saw on his ceiling became a canvas for envisioning dynamic scenes, setting the stage for a lifelong exploration of art. His discovery of painting later offered him a formal medium to articulate his vivid imagination, filled with dragons and extraterrestrial beings. His fascination eventually prompted him to pursue ink-wash painting as his lifelong career.

While completing his graduate studies, Sha learned that his childhood village had been demolished. Faced with this irreversible loss and flooded with nostalgia and grief, he turned to art for a resolution. He began to explore whether he could express these complex emotions through his work. This creative process inspired Sha to craft a unique brushstroke technique, which later became his signature style for depicting lush mountains and dense foliage.

Sha’s work can be seen as a tribute to his lost homeland. Floating islands swathed in lush foliage and detailed subtropical flora offer a narrative link to the past. Elements like cerulean lakes and playful fauna further augment this idyllic aesthetic. At the centre of these islands stands a cottage; its window bears a hint of yellow, symbolizing the comforting light of home.

For those of us surrounded by concrete landscapes and skyscrapers, Sha’s work becomes a conceptual haven that offers a nurturing embrace—a quiet refuge from the chaos of modern life.

Sha himself says, “I’ve moved from painting physical landscapes to capturing the landscapes of my inner world. Here, I can freely explore and express myself. I can articulate my longing for my lost homeland, create a utopian world, and give life to my boundless imagination. It’s a peaceful, harmonious world where happiness and contentment can be found.”

An exceptional piece among Sha’s creative paintings, Time and Space Lotus Blossom features two circular halos that seem to form a connection between heaven and earth. Two colossal rocks stand suspended in the air, leaning on each other, while a pink lotus blossoms on top. The painting explores ideas about the creation of life, the flourishing of wisdom, and a celestial realm where time and space intertwine.

Stones of time

Sha is known for his unique and provocative depiction of weathered rocks, drawing inspiration from the remarkable geological formations known as “Beehive Rocks.” Sculpted by millennia of weathering and sea erosion, these naturally occurring formations have become a central muse for Sha’s artistic expressions.

“In painting these raw yet beautiful formations, I hope to afford the audience an escape—even momentarily—from the everyday rhythm of life, a place where they can immerse themselves in a surreal sensory experience,” Sha says. “These enigmatic rocks serve as a recurring backdrop in my work, inviting audiences into the imaginative spaces I’ve created.”

While traditional Chinese painting offers a rich array of techniques for depicting picturesque landscapes of mountains and rocks—a widespread and beloved theme in the genre—few artists have made the pitted Beehive Rocks their focal point. Sha has instead sought innovative ways to adapt traditional techniques, layering and shading, to construct textured rock formations that capture their mystique and temporal existence.

Sha’s painting The Legend of the Mundane World symbolizes a journey to distant lands in search of a mountain that engraves people’s memories into
its rock face, forming an indelible mark. The small village at the foot of the mountain is a suitable place for practicing forgetfulness.

By focusing on these cavity-ridden surfaces, Sha creates a visual metaphor for the passage of time and the spectrum of life from birth to maturity. While his work challenges the norms of traditional landscape painting through minimalist geometric forms, he maintains a close relationship with the core elements of the age-old art form of ink-wash painting. “My tools are traditional—brushes and xuan paper—nothing elaborate. What matters is the integrity of the painting process and the authenticity that radiates from the work,” he says.

The unforgiving nature of ink presents unique challenges, as errors are permanent, leading many artists to opt for more forgiving mediums. Sha, however, is steadfast in his commitment to ink, valuing its unique, ethereal qualities that he believes cannot be replicated in other mediums.

“Our ink-wash tradition is an inheritance; it’s my responsibility to expand it, to experiment and to explore new avenues for creation,” he says. “So, despite the difficulties this medium presents, it’s one I’ll always prefer over others.”

This creative defiance is evident in his latest series, Mechanic Landscapes, where he transforms the Beehive Rocks into complex, interconnected gears. Each gear serves as a component within a more extensive system—much like the intricate movement of a watch—symbolic of nature’s intricate, even mystical, inner workings where seasons change, and unseen forces operate.

Sha’s painting Warm Spring features splashes of pink and bright yellow representing the blossoming flowers of spring. The window is aglow with warm light as if awaiting the return of a wandering traveller.

Eastern philosophical influences

“When I stand upon these natural rocks, it feels as if the divine is communicating directly with me. It’s an experience of unity with nature, of losing oneself,” Sha says.

The Taoist concept of “the oneness of heaven and man” represents the pinnacle of traditional Chinese aesthetics. Achieving this state goes beyond mere observation or superficial engagement with nature. While sketching can replicate visual elements, true artistic depth is attained through deep immersion in nature, capturing the essence of its multifaceted phenomena.

In studying seaside rocks, Sha felt a deep connection with these ancient geological forms. He envisioned their journey spanning millions of years across multiple dimensions and galaxies before arriving at their earthly manifestations. To Sha, these rocks hold the history and memories of the universe, something many of us can scarcely begin to comprehend. These untold cosmic legacies are the stories he aims to capture in his art.

Sha’s painting Above the Ordinary depicts lotus blossoms flourishing atop rugged rocks. Waterfalls stir up mist and vapour as the water flows into the valley, creating a hazy and ethereal atmosphere, much like the feeling of “rising above the ordinary.”

Sha jokingly notes that such deep immersion within nature and the cosmos might account for the longevity of many traditional ink painters. This connection often induces a meditative state, bringing tranquillity to one’s breath, stabilizing cardiac rhythms, and nurturing both mental and physical well-being. “This sense of peace and fulfillment is why I’ve remained committed to painting, and I hope my art can elicit similar feelings in others,” he says.

From August 2021 to early 2023, Sha’s nine-meter-long painting Endless Generations was displayed at Taiwan’s largest airport, Taoyuan International. The artwork features soaring, mountain-like beehive rocks and a massive Tai Chi symbol emerging from the water, surrounded by swarms of intricately detailed fish. Upon closer inspection, the stones reveal complex gears within their cavities, underscoring the work’s theme of life’s intricate interconnections and endless cycles.

Creating this monumental painting posed new challenges for Sha due to its sheer scale. Overcoming these challenges, however, marked the beginning of a new artistic chapter for him. With another large-scale project underway, he remains noncommittal about its completion date, stating, “I’ll continue painting until I’m satisfied.”

Sha’s work holds a unique place in the realm of contemporary ink painting. By elevating age-old practices through innovative execution and profound thematic depth, Sha presents a compelling argument for the medium’s continued relevance and untapped potential.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 122

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Inspired for a Beautiful Life

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