Cang Jian, the penname of artist and architect Qin Yi, consists of the characters for “vastness” and “space” – a reference to one unforgettable scene from his childhood.

“It was a cloudy day in north China. Black clouds floated over the vast wilderness. Everything was so sad, lonely, bleak, desolate and eternal,” he said.

Unlike many of China’s current crop of creatives, Qin came to pursue art as a hobby rather than a profession. Creative works offered him an outlet from his agonizing studies in civil engineering in Shanghai. The negative emotion led Qin to draw his first work: a screaming man in bathtub. He later named this picture “Shower.”

Qin was immediately drawn to the creative process and decided to apply to an art academy to pursue a master’s degree in architecture. But Qin found himself completely “unfit” for China’s regimented art system.

“Working in gesso every day made me sick,” he said. “I couldn’t feel inspired by looking at other artists’ works.”

He took to spending his nights wandering around dilapidated highways and factories in the dark, a sad environment that dramatically affected the tone of his work. He tried to switch to an art curation track, but soon quit due to his lack of interest.

“I gave up in the end. I went back to design school to become an architect. My creative passion remains a hobby now,” Qin said. “There are benefits. I’m not always being pushed to create something. Also, I don’t have to care what others think of my work.”

But there are drawbacks as well – the workload of two lives compresses his creative time. He says he is still learning how to refine new ideas during the day so he can complete them quickly at night.

Qin continues to dig into his personal solitude, turning negative emotions into more fuel for his works. He specializes in grandiose black-and-white scenes that reconstruct space – a nod to his background in architecture.

“I’m enchanted by the power of urban scenes. Immersing myself into the city brings me spiritual satisfaction. I love to juxtapose extreme, so I usually paint an enormous space and then delicate objects within,” he said.

Qin’s innate sensitivity has helped him to better understand the isolation of space. One painting, Cocoon, depicts his ideal inner world in eight spaces that correspond to aspect of his personality. His personal favorite is Bridge, an image of a young man rowing between cages. Qin said it expresses the subtle creative interplay between mystery and peace.

Qin said he hopes his pictures inspire people to explore the space of their own minds. In 2013, he paid to self-publish his first art book, The Works of Cang Jian.

“I want to build a world in which people can feel at home in their solitude – a world without aging and fear. My art has helped me to feel less haunted by desperation and confusion. I think the greatest happiness in life is to be able to embrace your existence through creation,” he said.

Karena Hu

About Karena Hu

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Karena was born with the English name Karen but decided to add an “a.” She dreamed of a career in astronomy, but bad scores in physics kept her out of the science department. She seeks other worlds in reading and writing and is a super fan of the Hunger Games trilogy.

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