Paralytic artist finds hope painting bottles

Xinhua, September 01, 2020
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In the early morning, Sun Zhicheng sits in front of the table in her studio and gets ready to start her work for the day.

She twists off the pigment lid with her teeth, dries the interior of a finger-size bottle with a bulb blower under her chin and uses a tiny brush to paint on the inner surface of the tiny container.

The 33-year-old is an inside-bottle painter in the city of Hengshui in Hebei province. She was born paralyzed and can only move her right hand. It usually takes her several hours to paint the inside of a snuff bottle with a bottleneck roughly the size of a coin.

Snuff bottles were used by Chinese during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to contain powdered tobacco. With delicate carvings on the surface or painting inside, snuff bottles are now popular collectors' items.

Sun was born in a family of farmers in Hengshui. Being confined at home due to her paralysis, she learned how to write by herself when she was a child and cultivated her natural talent by teaching herself how to paint.

When told that some people with disabilities had managed to live on their own by painting bottles in 2009, Sun decided to have a try, dreaming of being independent one day.

But her parents were not supportive. They felt inside-bottle painting was difficult for people without disabilities, let alone for someone who has with them.

"I knew my aging parents couldn't look after me my entire life. I was determined to learn a skill to support myself," Sun says.

In school, Sun tied her middle and ring fingers with a thin thread to hold the paintbrush firmly, and used her head, chin and teeth for such actions as opening the paints.

She practiced painting for more than 16 hours every day.

"I wanted to prove that I can support myself and lead a life of value."

In August 2010, one of her works featuring flowers and birds won the third prize in an exhibition of works by people with disabilities in Hengshui.

Her work not only won the hearts of the judges but also helped her find her Mr Right.

In 2012, while Sun continued her studies, Wang Shunxin, a migrant worker from Dezhou, Shandong province, visited the school where Sun was studying.

"I saw a beautifully painted bottle and asked to meet the creator. And there she was, a pretty, tiny figure sitting in a wheelchair, with her eyes filled with optimism and hope," Wang, 35, recalls.

They became friends in the following year, during which time Wang encountered misery in life and work, but was comforted and cheered up by Sun.

After they got married in 2014, the couple started selling inside-painted bottles.

Wang looks after Sun, helps her when she paints and sells the bottles as a street vendor. The works sell for 200 yuan ($29) to more than 100,000 yuan.

With the help of the local government, Sun opened her own studio in May. They also created a livestreaming account to teach netizens how to paint inside bottles and share their lives online.

"By telling our story, I hope more people can find beauty in life and spread positive energy across society," Sun says.