Passions in Carvings Speaking Inner Feelings
No one would believe the pretty and always-smiling lady is already the grandmother to five children. Born in 1954, Zeng Shuzhu should be enjoying a peaceful life and playing with her grandchildren now and then. Yet just two years ago she chose to end her thirty-two-year marriage and start anew with carving knives to chisel out a new life.
She was brought up in Linnei Township in Yunlin County. Lively and vibrant, she carries the image of simple country folk. When talking about her childhood, she has an endless repertoire of funny memories. Childhood fun, countryside scenes and family interactions make up her sources of inspirations and carving themes.
After elementary school, she did not continue school but stayed home to help and was busy running errands between grocery stores and rice paddies all day long. She got married at the age of eighteen and left her hometown with her husband who had finished his apprenticeship in religious statue carving and was ready to set up his own business. The young couple moved to Sanyi and opened a woodcarving shop. Incessant orders for wood sculptures turned Zeng Shuzhu into a versatile woman. She had to take care of housework and her children and was also the accountant and cashier at the shop. When there was a shortage of hands, she could also help the carvers do the initial shaping. The villagers remembered her as “the lady on the bicycle with a kid on her back and busy in and out.”
The days of family life and helping with the business flew by and things began to change. The woodcarving business in Sanyi started to be affected by massive imports from China and the number of orders began to drop. One day, out of the blue, she pickup up carving knives, thinking of making a toy for a grandchild. With nothing but an ineffable fascination, she finished the first creation: three lively fishes jumping out the fish basket. She still has it today for souvenir.
So she went on and started to fumble her way without a teacher. Over six months went by before she found her direction, “I wanted to begin with things I was familiar with and the country life and scenes in my childhood spontaneously became my subjects.” When she names her artworks, her childishness is unknowingly revealed: For example, the piece named “Continuation” depicts a farmer taking his stud boar to do mating business, and the piece showing a man with his child on the shoulders picking mangoes from someone else mango tree in perfect collaboration is named “Cooperation Brings More Profits”. Both draw empathetic grins.
In Zeng Shuzhu’s artworks the feeling of “relaxation and simplicity” is always present and she considers it a remarkable characteristic. Without proper training, her sometimes-rough techniques and inaccurate proportioning are a far cry from academically cultivated finesse. “When I carve, there are things in my mind that I’m unable to speak out. So I use the chisels to put these ideas into the wood and come up with something.” She expresses her inner world through woodcarving and the truthfulness has touched many people.
God helps those who help themselves. In 1995 her work was chosen in the Taiwan Woodcarving Competition. Although she did not win a prize, the whole village was already impressed by the accomplishment. As her works were closely related to her inner world, when she thought she had received recognition and next time she would definitely win and use the prize money to buy a camera to record her works, “to my surprise, as soon as the materialistic desire entered my mind, I just lost the touch!” She decided right then to stay true to herself and not care if she would win or lose anymore. As a consequence, her carving improved even more. Her works received rather favorable criticisms at some exhibits and she had some income for the first time and had a taste of success.
The economic impact in recent years and a serious illness as she entered menopause almost stopped Zeng Shuzhu from any further art endeavor. She laughed and commented that last year’s “Hakka Women’s Living Image Exhibition&rd