JIOUFEN, TAIWAN – A famous painter lives in this old mining town that clings to a mountainside. He took a different road to artistic fame. Hsi-hsun Chiu is not just famous for what he paints but what he paints with — hot asphalt.
Talk about detouring from the artistic norm.
“The idea of using asphalt came to me one day while I was watching some road workers pour hot tar,” says the likeable 70-something whose studio sits on a hill overlooking a coastal scene that looks like it jumped off a Monet canvas.
Above: Hsi-hsun Chiu has a unique style of painting and his asphalt paintings are legendary.
“The hot asphalt looked so beautiful when it was being poured. So I picked up a piece, brought it home, melted it and poured it out on a canvas. The 3D effect was stunning — I knew right then that asphalt, not paint, was what I would use in my art,” says Chiu, who started out drawing cartoons for a local newspaper.
Needless to say, Taiwan’s traditional artists were not amused with the cartoonist’s new painting style.
“Conservative artists accused me of not being respectful of tradition and they said I was just making a spectacle to get media attention,” says the soft-spoken Chiu, who had his first showing in 1980. “I almost quit because I was so hurt by the criticism.”
However, media attention came in the form of rave reviews for his work and soon word of Chiu’s unique style of painting spread far and wide — resulting in lots of international press showing up on his doorstep.
One day, a former U.S. president knocked on his door.
Above: Hsi-hsun Chiu's creations are scattered about his modest house just outside this former Japanese town.
“A reporter wrote a story about a painting I did of Bill Clinton playing golf and the president was so intrigued, he asked to buy it,” says Chiu, who proudly points to a photograph of himself standing with Clinton and the painting the former U.S. president purchased while he was on a visit to Taiwan.
Another of Chiu’s works — a moving portrait of Pope John Paul II deep in prayer — hangs in the Vatican alongside the works of Raphael and Michelangelo.
“I wanted to do something very special when I knew I was going to meet Pope John Paul II and he liked the painting I did of him so much that he ordered it hung in the Vatican,” says the painter.
Instead of a brush, Chiu uses spoons and palette knives to paint his masterpieces and dries the paintings with the help of a blow torch. The results are remarkable.
“I start by taking a spoon and dipping it in the asphalt which is just the right temperature to work with — pliable but not so hot that it will burn the canvas,” he says. “Then I splatter the asphalt on the canvas with the same ‘suspended wrist’ technique used in Chinese calligraphy. I make thin lines by applying the palette knife at a high angle — for thicker lines I use the knife at a low angle.”
One of the most challenging but appealing aspects of using asphalt is the fact the material is hard to control, according to Chiu.
“The asphalt actually creates many lines on its own when you pour it and that gives my paintings a simple and unpretentious quality,” says the man who remains simple and unpretentious in his own right despite gaining international fame.
Using solvents, Chiu is able to turn the thick black asphalt into various shades of brown and by adding pigment he’s actually able to turn the black tar to a vibrant red.
The three-dimensionality and bright blackness of Chiu’s paintings are what really makes his art stand out.
His scenes of Jioufen’s narrow old streets and paintings of Bodhidharma, the legendary Zen master, are the ones that were most appealing to my artistic eye. However, the painter says his favourite subjects are the miners of Jioufen.
“Their faces are as rugged as the raw asphalt,” says the man who has been painting for more than 30 years.
Although Chiu refused to reveal what Clinton paid for his painting, the artist says his art is very affordable — “a small painting costs about $700 U.S.”
The hard-of-hearing artist has lost count of the number of canvases he’s painted, but the Van Gogh of Taiwan predicts, “I’ll paint many more before I die because I love painting.”
The only thing Chiu doesn’t paint are road signs.