China’s earliest leather artifacts date back to 1000 B.C. At that time, a special committee was established to study techniques of leather manufacture with the information systematically recorded in written journals. Thus China was the first country to possess written records on the “art of leather making.” Appreciating the beauty of decorative art, these early artisans processed leather by carving patterns into it, staining it with wax-based colored pigments and inlaid it with precious stones and jade, thereby elevating leather art to prominence in the fine art field.
Today, Taiwan has produced a native son who is recognized as leather sculpture’s foremost exponent, Chan Liu Miao. Born in 1946 to a family of farmers, Chan graduated in 1971 from the national Taiwan Academy of Arts. Gifted and hard-working, young Chan eagerly explored a spectrum of arts: woodcarving, ceramics, painting and sculpture.
In 1980, he embarked on research into developing and refining leather sculpture. Five years of continual trial and error eventually produced, in 1985, the first formal exhibition of his three dimensional leather sculpture, attracting the attention of the artistic community as well as government officials of Taiwan. Recognizing the uniqueness of his leather sculpture, the government invited Chan to participate in the 1986 National Palace Museum’ “Experimental Exhibition of Contemporary Art.” Later that year, after the Council for Cultural Planning and Development sponsored an exhibition of Chan’s sculpture at their Culture Gallery, his work was sent on a cultural tour of Central and South America. In the course of over 35 exhibitions that have followed at home and abroad, Chan’s leather sculpture has been acknowledged by the art world as being at the forefront of modern Taiwan’s exploratory contemporary art.
Chan’s sculpture conveys a sense of living intimacy that seems to pulse with bodily warmth and breath. The secret of course is Chan’s unique talent at working with leather. Preferring cowhide as his primary material for leather sculpture, Chan very carefully selects the hides, inspecting it for any flaws. This leather is used for the facial features, limbs, musculature and the trailing sleeves of gowns, due to its fine texture and pliability. Thicker leather is used for the more abstract elements such as the tables, chairs and other decorative accessories to suggest their coarser texture.
The preparation process kept a secret by Chan, but involves many steps to prepare the leather and includes steps to strengthen its durability and yet maintain its flexibility. Each piece is coated with a special formula to allow the sculpture to retain its sculptured shape.
The sculpture’s facial expression is the most difficult and challenging for it must be the heart and soul of the entire sculpted figure. So, beginning with the head, Chan works the leather by pulling, twisting, pressing, pinching, hammering, squeezing, shaving and piercing it in order to make the face, then every part of the body convincingly lifelike and natural in expression. After the shaping is completed Chan paints the leather with acid-based or oil-based dyes. Once completely dry, he sprays each work with transparent lacquer as a preservative. With this, another compellingly lifelike leather sculpture, radiating with its creator’s vision of life, is finally completed (usually a six month process).