By Tammy Scileppi
As a highly skilled calligrapher, you could say Simon Xianwen Zeng paints his soul on paper with brush strokes of black ink.
Inspired by nature, his paintings have an organic quality and are sometimes whimsical. His hand-carved, Han Dynasty-inspired chops, or seal engravings, embody “a style of classical strength.”
“I use brush, ink, color and oil on canvas and express my rich imagination, my childhood memory and my love for nature through my works,” Zeng said. “I transform what I see into something that might seem different from the reality, but in the form of my imagination.”
Since he moved into his home studio in Flushing almost 20 years ago, Zeng has enjoyed living and working in the vibrant area, which in some ways reminds him of his childhood home in the historic town of Jinzhou of Dalian City, in the Liaoning Province of southern China.
He started painting and writing calligraphy when he was 12, and learned the ancient art forms passed down by the masters. Eventually, he won national awards. But he yearned for more.
“At that time, China was going through a very tough phase when people weren’t allowed to engage with the traditional culture, and a lot of books and artworks were destroyed due to political reasons,” Zeng said. “Just like everybody else at that time, I struggled to live and grow, but those memories became the nutrition of my art that made me want to pursue the pure, true, and beauty of art.”
In 1996, Zeng traveled to the United States.
After experiencing temporary culture shock, he embraced a Western way of life but held on to some Chinese customs and beliefs. He said he and his family will be celebrating the Year of the Monkey by having a traditional dinner.
“We eat fish, dumplings and vegetables,” he said. “Some of them have special meanings, like the fish means wealth, and the New Year cake made of steamed glutinous rice, means new improvements in the next year.”
When he arrived in New York back in the ‘90s, Zeng’s artistic pursuits led him to the Art Students League of NY, where he met artists who had a totally different way of expressing themselves.
More recently, Zeng, 48, was nominated one of the 100 best calligraphers in New York City in 2015, and samples of his aesthetic calligraphy pieces grace the pages of a new book titled, “100 New York Calligraphers” by Cynthia Maris Dantzic.
Emphasizing energy and motion — two important elements of Chinese calligraphy — the artist’s works seem charged with dynamic life.
In his pieces you can see an intermingling of light, harmony and open space. His work resonates with American audiences, young and old. Simplicity and an aesthetic balance lend a contemporary feel to all his creations.
And it’s no wonder. In Chinese culture, the traditional art of Chinese calligraphy — Shu fa, or the way of writing — is deeply rooted in aesthetic beauty.
Shu fa is more than the simple depiction of words or ideas. It encompasses China’s rich history and culture. Zeng hopes to convey this concept through his work, and in so doing, provide curious viewers with a glimpse into China’s past, across the centuries, and present.
Known as the Four Treasures, paper, ink, inkstone, and brushes make up the essential elements for Chinese calligraphy. As an art there are certain guidelines that viewers are encouraged to consider.
According to New York-based Chinese artist Fang Mei Chen, these are strokes, harmony and contrast, characters and the soul.
“Strokes must feel alive, varying in thickness and flair,” Chen writes. “Characters must be beautiful and balanced, as well as executed with the calligrapher’s own touch.”
Zeng’s “Happiness and Longevity” poem in calligraphy is a great example.
Encompassing both art and functionality, Chinese calligraphy has been described as the art thought to embody more directly and more vividly than any other, the unique physical presence and the creative personality of the individual writer.
Look closely and you can find that special quality within Zeng’s calligraphy pieces and ink and wash paintings. They may appear closely related, since they’re created using similar tools and techniques.
Ancient calligraphers believed that the soul is the expression of the artist’s emotions that appears in a work. And the script, which can be traditional or not, can be stylized to achieve a flowing energy.
That energy is very apparent in Zeng’s artwork.
His individuality, spontaneity and deep-felt emotions are expressed in one of his favorite calligraphy pieces.
“The dispersed clouds and mist clear the regret in the world. The rolling waves wash away the sadness since time immemorial,” he said.
“Regardless of whether the piece is Oriental or Western, good artwork should express the truth, virtue, and beauty of humanity,” Zeng said, “instilling within the viewer a sense of joy and happiness and provoking deep contemplation and reflection.”