Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Searching for Treasure in Shangri-la

When I moved to China this year, I had a few goals.


One was to find treasure. Or more precisely, the people who make it.

The Scholars' Four Treasures (paper, ink, inkstones, and paintbrushes) are a foundation of China's arts and literary culture, but have become irrelevant to most people's daily lives today.

So I'm searching for the artisans who still make them, especially paintbrushes.

Cold workspace
chilly workspace

China's literati and politicians do seem to be concerned with the extinctions that are occurring in every aspect of its natural and cultural landscape. But, like climate change, the problems can seem so big it's hard to know where to begin.

Desk distractions
green distractions

Studio at midday
big vistas from other end of workroom

Thanks to support from the China Exploration and Research Society, I was able to raid their library in Hong Kong, and work as their first Artist in Residence at CERS's Zhongdian Center in Shangri-la.

writer's and composer's terrace

I started searching for brushmakers in Southwest China rather than provinces near Shanghai in the east, which is where most of the Four Treasures were produced.

out of the library window

Unlike my spontaneous backpacking explorations of the past, having deadlines and a young assistant doubled the organization required, and the prices paid.

The one month residency at CERS's Zhongdian center was a much-needed respite from weeks of travel through China's wild west. A small library offered lively Tibetan and Mongolian travelogues, illustrated with travelers' photos from the last two centuries.

E on ledge
in library

Everywhere at the center, floors were warmed by Tibetan rugs, doorways softened by embroidered hangings, and wooden windows embellished with traditional designs. The beautiful Napahai landscape had a different personality every day: brilliant clear blue skies predominated, and moody autumn rains reminded us winter was coming.

Shangri-la (Zhongdian)
Napahai Lake, down the road from Zhongdian Center

Thanks to Tsering Drolma of CERS and explorer Jeff Fuchs, I was able to meet the director of Zhongdian's Thangka Academy, and get a close look at how these sacred paintings are produced. Also, a month with no distractions allowed time to thoroughly organize my notes, and evaluate the first stage of research.

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