ARCADIA — Stallions and monkeys would take form as the 6-year-old Tiefeng Jiang worked his chalk across the walls of his home in China's Zhejiang province.
"I just liked drawing," the bespectacled artist, now 50, says simply, in Mandarin.
Fortunately for Jiang, his creations were rewarded with praise instead of a spanking.
Almost half a century later and halfway across the globe, the unassuming Jiang is still the subject of praise. In fact, he is touted by some as one of the most exciting and original artists to emerge from China in recent years.
"He is (China's) most creative, most modern artist," said Henry Riseman, director of the New England Center for Contemporary Art. The museum, in Brooklyn, Conn., has introduced the work of Chinese artists for each of the last 15 years, and now displays 36 of Jiang's paintings.
Jiang appeared on the American scene as a visiting artist in 1983 and never returned to China. Working from his home in Arcadia, he marvels at how well his pieces are selling at galleries throughout the United States.
His paintings, which were censored in China because they so starkly violated conventional style, evoke romance and maternal love with cultural symbols, vibrant colors and complex lines.
The shapes and forms of subjects take on more importance than the content, he explained in a 1981 essay he published in a Chinese art journal. A 1985 painting--"Line Symphony"--appears at first glance to be a pleasant maze of white lines with splashes of green and yellow, red and blue. A closer look reveals a flock of birds in flight, cranes and a fish interwoven into the sensuous outlines of four reclining women.
"There's been nothing like this before," said Jamie Ellin Forbes, publisher of Sun Storm Arts Magazine, based in Long Island, N.Y.
"When he first came, nobody had had a taste of this (genre) of art yet," Forbes said, adding that academicians in this country are just getting interested in Jiang's paintings. "He has staying power," she said.
Jiang, a graduate of Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts, bristles at some reviewers' suggestions that his works are merely a borrowing of Western modern art techniques to depict Chinese themes.
Although he admires modern European artists such as Picasso, Kandinsky and Chagall, he notes that abstract work is not new to Chinese art.
"There were artists in the Tang Dynasty who put paint on their own bodies, then rolled on paper to create abstract paintings," he points out. He himself was inspired by ancient Buddhist murals that portray nude figures and complex designs, as well as by primitive cave paintings, with their bold use of color.
Jiang was also fascinated by the lives and rural customs of villagers in the ethnically diverse province of Yunnan, where he spent 19 years painting political posters and murals for the Mao Zedong government during the Cultural Revolution.
After hours, he worked late into the night developing his own style on the wooden planks of his bed, rebelling against the traditionally simple compositions of officially approved art and the taboo against nudity.
Enraptured by Tribesmen
While living in Yunnan, he became enraptured by the people of a local tribe known as the Sani, whom he portrayed in a government-commissioned mural that he painted at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In another painting, titled "Moon Dance," four Sani women cavort in the glow of a red moon.
"Sometimes they danced until dawn!" said Jiang, laughing at the memory of the nightly celebrations.
He later continued to paint as a professor at the Yunnan Art Institute. But he received hints that the government did not appreciate his experimentation.
At an exhibition for artists from the Yunnan region at Beijing's National Art Gallery in 1981, Jiang was excluded from television coverage, and officials convened a meeting after the show to condemn his efforts as "not suitable to socialism." Later his works were rejected for permanent inclusion in the gallery's collection.
"I'm so sorry for that action," Jiang said. "I don't think it's an artist's museum; it's a government (tool)."
Tired of the restrictions on his work, he decided to leave.
Upon arrival in the United States in 1983, Jiang settled in Minnesota. In 1986 he moved to Arcadia to escape the cold winters. He lives with his wife, Zhaolin, and two sons in a four-bedroom home with a pool and billiard room.
The Tian An Men Square massacre in June has reinforced his view that liberties under the Chinese government are too unpredictable.
"I was very pained," he said. "People want freedom--artists, too."
Will Switch to Oil
Although most recently Jiang has worked with acrylic paints on rice paper, he intends to switch to oil on canvas soon. His paintings sell for between $20,000 and $65,000, but he says commercial success is not his primary goal; recognition from the art world is.
Jiang's agent, Minnesota gallery director Allan Fingerhut, said such a goal won't be achieved overnight.
"It's so new, it takes (museums) a while to absorb it," Fingerhut said. Although about 50 of Jiang's paintings have been sold this year alone, "it really takes about 20 years of being out there for any recognition or acceptability by the public and institutions," he said.
To that end, Riseman of the New England museum is organizing a national university tour of 22 of Jiang's prints, which will begin in the spring. And 19 of Jiang's works will be on exhibition at the "Art Expo Cal 1989," to be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center next month.
While he continues his struggle for recognition, Jiang has decided to make America his permanent home.
He smiled, then answered: "Freedom, no limit."