The phrase “Shang Chao” in spoken conversation would usually refer to one of China’s earliest dynasties. But for artist Shang Chao, it’s his name.

“I didn’t choose it. It’s only one printed on my ID card and hukou,” he says.

China’s art scene values the academic chops of its artists, and with Shang’s background he is at a distinct disadvantage. As a child, Shang struggled with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and could not focus at school. Eventually, his teachers realized he was only drawn to the pictures in his textbooks.

“I remember my mom talked to me about it one day. I had been drawing for more than 20 minute,” he says. He encouragement to focus on art was one of his earliest memories.

Shang never had the chance to study at a university, and as an adult his continued artistic growth has been almost entirely self-directed. Art is his chance to escape from the noisy world and explore his imagination.

Many of his paintings, such as Passenger, focus on pathways to exploration or destiny. “I combine my experiences in different locations across different times. Some images involve my old home, my relatives who have passed away and time spent on trains,” he says. The combined memories convey a feeling of loneliness and sorrow.

The paintings show Shang’s journey through life until he settled down in a Beijing courtyard, where he began to work on The Practice, a series depicting the plants in his yard.

“I took the plants I saw and watched them progress through the cycle of life. They are much stronger than people. Some trees can stand for 100 years, and my plants are only a shadow of them,” he says.

Shang says people are like magnets, in that they attract others with similar ideas and knowledge. His The Way to Post Office uses the magnet as a metaphor to show how people find their destinies in life.

“The magnet is guided by thoughts and attitudes rather than distance. I am still trying to find my destiny, and the friend who will accompany me on it,” he said.

In his free time, Shang collects his memories. The painting Memory Flashback depicts touchstones from his life.

His favorite picture to date is titled Life of the Cat. “I never thought too much about which pictures could really represent myself, but that image of a cat standing in the light really defines my internal conflict. I feel like that is me,” he says.

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