|Chen Xiaoling paints at her home in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. [Sun Zhenghao/Xinhua]
XI'AN — As a young woman, Chen Xiaoling clung to her passion for painting, even during her most miserable moments.
"When can I paint freely on the canvas without having to worry about my life?" she asked herself hundreds of times while she was selling eggs, making bricks or collecting garbage to earn a living in a village in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.
Decades later, Chen, now 64, sat in her study against the backdrop of a Chinese landscape she painted. She said she is satisfied with how far she has come. "I have been in love with painting since childhood," she said. "The love has nothing to do with my age or my profession."
Chen said her interest in art was embedded in her genes. "My great-grandfather was a carpenter and good at painting, while my granny and aunt were both paper-cutting experts," she said. "And my two elder brothers both learned art at school."
When she was a child, her second brother used to spread white lime on the slope of a canal and let her "draw" on it using her feet.
In the following years, she would face some of the biggest struggles of her life. In addition to farming, she used to transport coal, sell wool and eggs and even collect trash to make money. While eight months pregnant, she even trekked on a mountainous road for more than 15 kilometers to find a kind of apple that she could grow.
But her tough life would not stop her from seizing every opportunity she had to paint.
Chen got married on a rainy day in 1983. The home she shared with her husband, who was from an impoverished family, had rooms that were fairly bare, without much decoration. On a wall in her bedroom, she spent three days completing a painting that depicted people traveling through mountains and streams.
She finally had enough time to paint at the age of 53 after she bought a new apartment and her children moved away with their spouses. She called herself a layman back then.
"I have never received any systematic training," Chen said.
To learn how to paint, she frequented art exhibitions and enrolled in painting courses both at a seniors university and online.
Once she saw a portrait inside a restaurant and went to have a look.
"The waitress kept talking about their dishes to me. To silence her, I asked for a bowl of noodles," she recalled. The noodles cost her 28 yuan ($4), which she thought was quite expensive. But she saw it as a "tuition fee" to learn painting.
Two things she has never hesitated to spend money on are painting tools and courses. She has spent more than 2,000 yuan to buy rice paper, and more than 10,000 yuan on paintings she liked.
Chen has completed more than 30 long scrolls with paintings depicting how farmers' lives have improved over the past few decades since the country started its reform and opening-up policy.
Surprised villagers would approach her while she painted.
They used to ask her, "Can you fill up your stomach with paintings?"
Chen said: "But after they saw my paintings, they began to understand. Whether they are in cities or in the countryside, people admire those who have real talent."
On the occasions of funerals and weddings, she was always invited to write or paint something for the families.
"She also likes giving paintings to others as presents, saying that art ignites people's lives," said her husband, Xu Keyong.
In her spare time, Chen taught in kindergartens and formed an art society. Inspired by her, other women picked up brushes, including retiree Fu Weiwei.
"Thanks to Xiaoling, I am now enjoying a richer senior life," she said. "Xiaoling encouraged us to be brave enough to chase our dreams, and not to be bound by age or profession."
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