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History graduate Mike Leung had worked as a barista. At the age of 24, he chose a road less trodden. After three years under the tutelage of Master Xie Guanghan, he is affirmed of what he wants to become.
How did you come to know about mounting of Chinese paintings and calligraphy?
Learning that CUHK was recruiting an apprentice, I googled and found that the Art Museum had newly recruited a great master in conservation, and that the profession was in dire need of new blood. It might imply less competition and a steadier career path.
How did it turn out?
Being the only apprentice at the Art Museum, I have been exposed to a comprehensive array of skills. If I worked in a business setting with meticulous division of labour, probably I’d learn much slower. Master Xie told me in the old days a junior can work on a real painting only after apprenticing for at least three years. I’m very lucky here. It took me only a year or so.
Does it take only three years to learn the full set of skills?
One can learn the fundamentals of mounting new hanging scrolls and couplets. As for the skills of conservation, it will take more than a whole life.
How can you remember all the complicated procedures?
At first I tried to jot down notes but Master Xie said, ‘Wait! Are you going to flip through the notes when you need to save a wetted painting? It will be too late to stop the ink from blurring.’ He asked me to learn every step well by heart, and plan all the procedures before laying my hand on an item. I benefit a lot by observing in detail his clean and sharp movements. If you understand the reason behind you will remember it effortlessly, like using the middle finger to spread the adhesive paste because it moves most smoothly and exerts just the right amount of weight.
Which step is the most tricky?
It takes about 30 steps to mount a raw painting onto a scroll. Preparing the back paper requires both skills and experience. To avoid creating air bubbles the adhesive must be spread evenly. As water is involved, we also need to identify the pigments on the painting to prevent discolouration or blurring.
Your job needs to be done with a peaceful mind. Are you fit for it?
A surgeon will shut himself off from distractions once he puts on his gown and enters the operating theatre. After work, he can be playful and light-hearted. Similarly, I will pay my highest respect and sole attention to the artwork once I am at the worktable.
Does it change the way you deal with other matters?
Yes, I learn to stay calm and be resourceful, or simply leave it to time. I know from experience that I can’t rush anything up. Water sprayed unevenly on the backing sheet will lead to uneven expansion of the paper tissues, causing creases on its surface. Give it some time, the tissues will gradually extend evenly and the problem will be solved.
How is your relationship with Master Xie?
Master Xie says he’s my teacher and friend. I feel he’s more like a father. He never gave me harsh words on my mistakes as an old-school master would, but put himself into my shoes. ‘I didn’t learn everything with the snap of a finger either when I was an apprentice.’ He imparts his knowledge and skills to me without reservation, and shows great concern for my conduct. As he always says, nobody will entrust his valuable artwork to somebody of bad morals.
When did you start thinking that this could be your long-term career?
I treated my job like a permanent one since the first day I was here. There have been moments of defeat when I failed to follow the steps or master the skills. But I will not give up. I’m confident that with the ample learning opportunities at the Art Museum, and the coaching and support from Master Xie, I will keep improving and become a qualified mounting master.
Do you want to see the world outside?
Of course I do. There are different schools of mounting and framing, each unique in its own way. Master Xie inherits the Suchow school. He has also travelled extensively to incorporate the best practice of other schools. In order to do that, I need to hone my skills and deepen my knowledge of this art. Otherwise, I won’t be able to tell the good from the bad, or to learn from others’ experience, not to mention to gain any insight.
This article was originally published in No. 527, Newsletter in Nov 2018.