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At His Fingertips; Practicing a centuries-old Chinese art form, Gong Nai Chang puts away his brushes and paints with his fingers.


WASHINGTON -- By the light of a lone desk lamp in the dank kitchen of a Northeast Washington house, Gong Nai Chang hunches over a large sheet of rice paper and dips the carefully sharpened nail of his index finger into a bowl of thick, pungent ink.

He pauses for a moment, then begins to paint.

Slowly, deftly, he creates an eye, then another, then a nose and a mouth. And when the fierce, ugly face of the legendary demon-slayer Zhong Kui is formed, he dabs more digits into the bowl and produces a beard, hair and then a body outline and sword -- all with swift strokes made by the tips of his fingers.

The portrait of the fearless Zhong Kui takes little more than half an hour to create, in an energetic painting process that brings to mind Jackson Pollock -- albeit a more sedate Jackson Pollock.

For the average American, the term finger-painting conjures images of kids, brightly colored paint and results that are more enthusiastic splatter than breath-taking talent.

While the 66-year-old Gong employs the same basic tools as a toddler, his paintings are far more complex, comparable to those produced by traditional Chinese brush painters. The only problem is, his chosen technique is so little-known, his work has yet to find an audience here.

Bai Qian Shen, a Boston University art history professor, says Chinese-style finger-painting is rare even in China, and virtually unknown in the United States.

"If you can use a brush," Bai says the thinking goes, "why use fingers?" In the 20th century, he says, there has been only one Chinese artist who has been widely renowned for finger-painting -- Pan Tian Shou, who died in the 1960s.

But the unique art form dates back to the 17th century when a famous artist named Gao Qi Pei dreamed one night of entering a cave in a mountain filled with beautiful images painted on its walls. Gao didn't have a brush, so he dipped his fingers in water and etched sketches of the images on the ground. When he woke up, he decided to try painting with his fingers and gained fame for the technique.

Gong's foray into finger-painting began quite by chance. Formally schooled in traditional Chinese painting and Western-style oil painting at the Central Art Institute of China in Beijing, the Hunan province native first touched fingers to paper in 1982 during breaks from practicing oil painting.

"I would paint all morning and then feel tired in the afternoon," Gong says in his native Mandarin. "So I began dipping my fingers in paint and just painting for fun. It was a way to relax."

At first he drew realistic likenesses of lions, tigers, birds and flowers, as traditional finger-painters had mostly done. Gradually, he added portraits of Buddhist monks, Chinese deities like Zhong Kui and legendary figures such as Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuan Zong's beautiful and brutally ambitious concubine, Yang Gui Fei.

Ask him what he likes best about his technique and his answer is part poetry, part practicality.

"If you use your hand, the feeling flows directly from your heart and mind to the paper," Gong says. "It doesn't have to go through the brush to get to the paper.

"Like if you drop something in a tub of water and you use chopsticks to try and get it out. But it's too slippery so you can't. Finally you get frustrated and you reach your hand in and you can get it out easily because you have direct contact.

"When I paint," he concludes, "it's as if blood flows from my heart through my fingers into the portraits."

In 1992, Gong attained national recognition in his homeland with an exhibition of his paintings at the China History Museum in Tiananmen Square. Then, in the summer of 1996, he was invited to display his work at an International Congress on Arts and Communications show in a U.S. city generations of Chinese immigrants have known as "Old Gold Mountain" -- San Francisco. That fall, he received an invitation to have an exhibition at St. John's College in New York. He remained in New York for six months, then applied for a resident alien's green card, which he received a year ago.

But by last summer, he had grown tired of New York's excessive bustle and moved south to Washington, where he had a few friends.

His time in the United States has led him to experiment with a new range of subject matter, particularly celebrities. In recent months, his large, scroll-style paintings have included likenesses of business magnate Lee Iacocca, the late Princess Diana, actor Tom Cruise, boxer Mike Tyson, and presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. His philosophy, he says, is to draw only people he admires. He spends weeks reading about their lives and accomplishments before even laying out the rice paper.

"I think about it and keep it in my stomach until I draw them," he says.

Gong has tried to spread the word about finger-painting by sending his portraits to his subjects as gifts, and has received letters of thanks from Clinton and Reagan.

But with his limited English skills and no agent, Gong has had no success so far selling his finger-painting work, which he prices from a few hundred dollars to as much as $2,000. Few galleries know about him or his technique, and it is hard for him to communicate with those who might be interested. So to make a sparse living, he paints oil portraits for friends and acquaintances.

A frugal man, Gong rents a tiny 7-by-10-foot room with barely enough space for a twin bed, desk and easel. The room is in a group house where many recent Chinese immigrants live, on a rundown block just across the street from a public housing complex.

His days go by quietly, with English lessons occupying most mornings, painting in the afternoon and evenings spent reading Chinese newspapers, writing letters and watching sitcoms to improve his English. ("I don't find them funny yet," he says.) On weekends, he spends time at a Buddhist temple in Washington's Chinatown, where he volunteers.

But his life is much larger than this tiny room in a neighborhood in which he doesn't feel entirely comfortable, in a country and culture that he's still struggling to understand.

Gong has a 48-year-old wife and two children in their 30s back in Beijing. On a friend's advice, he left his wife's name off his green card application, because he believed it would take longer for an application with two names. After it was approved, though, he found out it would take years for his wife to get residency here on her own.

Even with friends who meet with him on weekends, the loneliness is overwhelming at times, he says. And adjusting to tasks like cooking, washing clothes and being generally self-reliant in a strange new land has been a hard lesson for a man in his late 60s.

"Is it worth it?" he asks. "Life is just like that. For the sake of your career, you have to be prepared go anywhere to succeed."

Next week, he will return to Beijing for the first time in several months to see his family and celebrate the Lunar New Year. Then he'll return to his adopted home with the hope that the new year will bring luck in spreading the word about his craft.

"My dream is to let more Americans know about my specialty. For the sake of my art, for the sake of telling Americans about finger-painting," he says, employing a traditional Chinese phrase, "I'll have to 'eat bitter.' "

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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