Volume3 Issue1, January, 1999

Woodcarver Ezine
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Chinese Fire Works

Fine Line Portraiture by Ken Li

by Kathleen Menendez

Young Han Woman

by Ken Li

Pyrograph on basswood, 21 x 29 cm
After an oil painting by Pan Hong Hai

Photograph and scan by Ken Li

This work is also displayed in the Ken Li Salon in the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art.

This piece is one of a series the artist has done on the many population groups that comprise China. Because the Han group is a major ethnic group, in fact, the largest in China, it is referred to as a nationality.

Ken Li got his start in lao hua (pyrography in Mandarin Chinese) in 1967 as a student at the Chinese University of Science and Technology in Beijing, Peoples Republic of China. During his years in the university, a lot of students made their own transistor radios, and Ken was no exception. In fact, he made three just for practice. Risking accusation of being a U.S. spy, to the third one he added the components for a shortwave radio so he could pick up VOA and BBC to practice English. The students bought plywood and made casing for their radios. Some of his classmates asked Ken to draw something on their cases. The year before on a trip to Shao Shan, the home village of late Chairman Mao Ze Dong, Ken had noticed a bamboo cylinder with a beautiful pyrowork on it. He decided to do the same lao hua as soon as he got back to Beijing. The wood radio casings were an excellent opportunity for his new found medium.

Xin Xin

Daughter Xue Xin at age 6
by Ken Li, July 1992

Pyrograph on wood, 20 x 29 cm

Photograph by Ken Li

Beautiful little Xue Xin (her family calls her Xin Xin) was only a six-year-old in the portrait above. She's now a 6th grader and preparing for the important exams she must take for the next level of school. She loves music, drawing, and is a sports fan.

Another of Ken's family portraits, which has also remained in his own collection, is exhibited along with Xin Xin's in the E-Museum--an excellent portrait of his wife Fu Xiao Hong. Ken showed that pyrograph, completed on the 4th of July 1996, as a sample to the Shenzhen Association of Foreign Investment. As a result, Ken was commissioned to do pyrographed portraits of 16 VIPs in Shenzhen and Hong Kong including Mayor Li Zhibin.

(Note: Chinese names are written with the surname or family name first, followed by the first and middle names or given names. Ken Li's name in Chinese is Li Geng Quiang. He anglicized the Geng into Ken and then reversed the order when he writes in English so it will read in the English manner.)


by Ken Li

Pyrograph on basswood, 28 x 22 cm
After a postcard

Photograph and scan by Ken Li

Ken's Work and His Tools

At first on those wood radio cases Ken used a 100-watt soldering iron tool to draw pine trees, which symbolize longevity, and to write some quotations of Chairman Mao's. When he couldn't manage satisfactory detail for drawing figures, Ken's classmate suggested he use a transformer to control the heat. That's when the beautiful tone was added to his technique. (Right is typical of Ken's radio cases back then.)

After a few days' practice, Ken managed the control necessary to do portrait work, and even some teachers and professors asked him to do lao hua for them. Since then, Ken uses a 75-watt electric welder with the tip bent and filed into a form that allows him to do outlines, make a dot and a larger dark spot easily. He uses a self-induced transformer to adjust the voltage and thus the temperature of the pyropen. For larger pieces, he uses a 150-watt pyropen. However, recently he started learning to use a new professional tool. Although the new tool is efficient for small pieces and he likes it very much, for larger piece he prefers the old-style soldering iron type. The essential difference between the two lies in their heat capacities.

It usually takes him three days (5 hours per day) to finish a portrait pyrograph of 20 x 29 cm (8 inches by 10 inches). Ken takes his own photos and does his own scanning of his works, and his wife Xiao Hong helps him a lot in PC upgrading and operation.

Young Woman of Bali

by Ken Li

Pyrographed portrait of a young woman of Bali, Indonesia in an exotic traditional dress, 20 x 29 cm
After coverpage of airline magazine GARUDA

Photograph and scan by the artist

Ken's Story

Ken was born in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (a city in the center of the island of Java) where he grew up with his six brothers and sisters. When he was young, The Peoples Republic of China was founded. That historical event had a great impact on the whole world, and a unique effect on those Chinese people like Ken's family that were living and working abroad. At school the children were caught up in the patriotic movement and wave after wave of students responded to encouragement to "return to their motherland" for further schooling before joining the construction of the new country.

Ken's elder sister Li Jing left for China in 1952 when she was only 16, followed by his second sister Sumei in 1955. Ken left for China in 1960 when China was having great difficulties feeding her people. He fell ill with beriberi the next year. Although many of the returned expatriates eventually left China once more to seek a better life elsewhere, Ken decided to stay. He had become too attached to the people there, especially some of his teachers and friends.

Madonna and Child
By Ken Li

Pyrograph on basswood panel
After Raphael's Sistine Madonna

In later years, after China's "opening up policy", as Ken called it, his mother came often to visit them. Visiting him in Shandong Province was inconvenient for her, and so it was decided that he should move south to Shenzhen, one of the most modern cities in China, very near that most famous city recently returned to China--Hong Kong.


Click here for conclusion next page:

Pyrograffiti section follows
with many items of interest
and linked references

©1999 Kathleen M. Garvey Menendez