Artist creates a fantasy world of gods and ghosts on walls
Over the past several years, Chinese artist Wen Na (文那) has travelled to many places in the world to paint her original images and stories of ghosts and gods on nearly 100 walls. The talented artist’s mural painting, which is full of whimsy and superb artistry, has gained her fame in China’s art scene and attracted global attention.
This May, French luxury brand Hermes had its famous “Wonderland” art exhibition in Shanghai, with 11 showrooms conjuring up a fantasy world with Parisian landscapes as backdrop. Wen is one of the artists chosen by Hermes and she painted a mural titled “Paris—Shanghai,” featuring a Parisian subway scene. 
Visitors of her art space in the exhibition are ushered into a long hallway modelled on a metro station, where they find walls on both sides full of grotesque images of gods, goblins and other mythical creatures. The celestial beings under the Chinese artist’s pen look chic in bright colors and modern dress, and it's only their way of riding on the mists and clouds which remind people of the spirit in Chinese fairy tales.
The “Chinese immortals” created by Wen Na have these days become some kind of a cultural icon in China’s art community. When people want them, they would turn to Wen. “I’m inspired by archaic Chinese elements like Dunhuang frescoes, stone tablets, and classical literary works including The Pilgrimage to the West, The First Myth and The Classics of Mountains and Rivers,” Wen told
Although the post-1980s artist was more drawn to Western picture books and illustrations in college days, traditional culture is more deeply imbedded in her mind and creation due to family influence.
“It makes no sense to merely copy existing images or stories,” she thinks. Like the ultra-modern look of her Hermes “spirits”, Wen’s imaginative images derive from her childhood indulgence in traditional culture, a powerful imagination and appreciation of distinctive culture and landscapes where the mural is designed to fit into.
“I would consider the functions of the walls or buildings on which I would paint and learn about local legends or customs. These could help with my imagination,” she said. In 2010, she painted on a wall for an art center in Italy, which drew the attention of the Western art community to her for the first time.
In that small town on top of mountains facing the dark blue Mediterranean Bay, Wen painted two celestial beings “Qianshan and Zhaohai,” literally meaning pulling the mountains and shining on the sea surface in Chinese. In her imagination, Qianshan is a mountain spirit who connects and pulls the numerous hills with a string. “Imagine that she could use one string to pull all the mountains. The goddess capable of wielding her power lightly would have inexhaustible strength,” she told local media about the story she made up for Qianshan.
Zhaohai refers to the sea spirit, because the artist had seen a tract of white reflection of the moon on the sea surface one night. “Immersing in the sceneries, I wondered if there is a god who beacons the broad and dark sea surface every night for people,” she said. 
Sitting with the reporter in her spacious but dimly lit studio in Beijing’s Songzhuang Art Community, the young artist smiles like a child. “She’s incredibly lovely, and her life could satisfy all your imagination of an artist,” a writer thus described Wen. The big room with no partitions is of around 180 square meters, cluttered with several big wooden desks, a few other furniture and her painting works.
On the ground, there are piles of charming little objects she had collected from journeys around the world, echoing with the supernatural faces in her painting works. “People would sometimes ask if I’m a psychic. I’m the opposite actually,” Wen chuckled, noting that her good-natured goblins intend not to scare people but to convey a sense of kindness, joy and harmony.
Looking back, the Tsinghua Academy of Fine Arts graduate left her job as an illustrator for a state-backed newspaper to work as freelance artist doing murals, sculptures and all kinds of artistic creations related to her original images of celestial beings. When asked if the transformation is hard, Wen said it’s a natural process because there is no indecisiveness. “When the right feeling comes up I would just go with it,” she said.
In 2010, Wen did her first colored mural in Sanbao village, Jingdezhen, where the renowned ceramics artist Jackson Li had built his studio and an international ceramic institution popular among foreign artists and art lovers. “I run into Li. We talked a lot and I showed him my paintings on walls with markers. Then he decided to build an adobe wall for me to paint on it,” she recalled, still feeling thankful for Li. The unexpected meeting later led to several impressive mural works in Sanbao and then Wen’s rise to prominence as a muralist.
Now, the murals on Sanbao’s adobe walls have become mottled after years of exposure to the weather. One wall was even torn down. Wen told the reporter she’s cool with the changes. In fact, the artist believes this is the beauty of wall painting. “I prefer to paint on naturally formed objects, or external walls of architectures. In this way, the murals would go through their own changes as time goes by. It’s like they’ve got their own lives,” said Wen.
It’s true that every artist would wish for their works to be immortal. However, Wen thinks, every mural has its different “destiny”. Unlike papers, artistic works on walls could hardly be preserved. If a space was discarded, the mural with it would be torn down or left abandoned also. If a building went through ages, murals on its walls would also fade away finally. “Sometimes, we have to let it go,” she said.
“I’ve not learned traditional Chinese painting. So, I use Chinese brush the same way I use pen. I’m also not particular about painting materials. I actually paint on anything as long as its surface could be colored,” she said. Through painting on walls, the exploring artist finds out that the originally “flat” images have been given an impression of three-dimensional space.
The supernatural beings could cover all aspects of human lives and the nature, ranging from gods that are capable of toppling the mountains and overturning the seas, to those lovely ones that would only help people cook a good dinner. “Red pepper, aniseed, fish balls, hot pot, and kitchen all have their separate gods to ensure perfect flavoring,” the artist joked. And it is true that she had used the same pen and enthusiasm that she used for Qianshan and Zhaohai to depict the adorable spirits in charge of kitchen affairs.
Several years ago, Wen decided to compile a book titled Wen Classics to record all the images and stories of her “immortals”. In this way, she believes, they would live forever in the book, and they deserve to have a world to themselves. Since then, Wen would purposely collect images and stories she had created and painted somewhere. “Or, when I come up with interesting ideas of new images, I would draw them down and then find the right place to present them,” she said.
Now, Wen’s immortals could be seen in any form—drawing paper, walls, stones and sculptures.

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