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Drawing the Mountains: Shen Enmin’s Quest for Self-Knowledge

Shen Enmin

 

Mountains are a treasure trove. For Shen Enmin, to go into the mountains is to dispel perplexities, to cast a fresh eye on himself, and to reevaluate his priorities.

Shen’s successful professional career—from a vocational high school in Changhua to a technical university in Taipei, and from hand-drawn illus­tra­tions to digital art—has brought him acclaim and influence. But it also obfuscated his purposes at one point. Consumed by anxiety, he went into the mountains to draw and paint. Thanks to the healing power of nature, he was able to regain his com­posure and discover the secrets hidden in the woods. Drawing on several years of valuable experience, he has recently published a book entitled Lessons from the Mountains. Collaborating with people who are committed to environmental protection, Shen has devoted himself to the island he calls home.

 

In his element

“It’s as if I was born to doodle.” Freehand drawing is something Shen Enmin has enjoyed since his earliest days. From the department of advertising design at Chang­hua Senior High School of Commerce to the depart­ment of industrial and commercial design at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (Taiwan Tech), from creating art by hand to working with computers, Shen was always in his element, and his career advanced rapidly. In 2007 he started to work commercially. He counts himself fortunate to have worked with prestigious customers such as the National Palace Museum and the National Museum of Taiwan History: doing graphic design for their e-learning websites helped lay a solid foundation for his career. After three years, he went to work for a digital technology company, where he found himself dealing with very different kinds of commercial design. He was involved in online marketing work for brands such as Ford, Heineken, Chesdale, and Sony.

“My ideas materialize very slowly. When clients wanted things done at short notice, I often found the pressure suffocating.” Before executing his ideas, Shen prefers to gain a comprehensive understanding of his subject and to reflect carefully. Working in an environment that prioritized speedy delivery, he often felt un­satis­fied with his creations. The intensely competitive and ever-changing world of commerce soon began to take a heavy toll. Eventually, realizing that he could not fit in, Shen felt he had no choice but to leave.

Disenchantment

Having reinvented himself as a freelancer, Shen had works accepted by US and Canadian image banks and started to sell his illustrations on international websites. His lively compositions and characteristically straightforward style were much admired by Western customers. In 2014 these sales reached new heights, bringing him far greater earnings than he had received as an employee. “I was so excited at first, but this was followed by fatigue.” He felt as if he had turned into a banknote printing press, churning out artworks ceaselessly in order to get more money.

But fame begets imitation. “People began to plagiarize my works.” Beset with unprincipled competition, Shen felt helpless. He also felt exhausted, having to compete with the overwhelming numbers of artworks daily added to the image banks from all over the world. “Eventually I found myself unable to draw anymore.” That which he had been best at became something he wished to escape from, something that tormented him day and night. One of Shen’s illustrations in his Lessons from the Mountains recalls his plight at that time: it portrays a solitary person crouching in the middle of a crossroads, faced with countless interlacing paths, and not knowing which way to go.

Into the mountains

“I’ve been attracted to nature since childhood.” As the eldest son of the family, Shen grew up basking in par­ental love. Born under the sign of Pisces, he’s a typical romantic, always reveling in little things such as birdsong and the chirp of insects in apparently un­remark­able places. Fond memories of a childhood spent close to nature are deeply rooted in his soul. It was these memories which eventually drew him to the mountains.

“I’m obstinate,” Shen says, congratulating himself on having an uncomplaining wife who takes excellent care of their household. Returning to his childhood home in search of sanctuary, he was in for another shock—an unexpected sense of loss. “Those little ditches which used to greet you everywhere have all disappeared. Tall concrete buildings have risen up on what used to be waste land.” On the wall of his old home in Changhua, however, there was a familiar painting of a magnificent mountain, standing tall like a chalice. Like Ariadne’s thread, it led him out of the labyrinth of disorientation.

There he also stumbled across a book that had belonged to his grandfather. A neatly written note on the flyleaf says that the book—which is about the great mountains of Taiwan—was bought on Shen’s birthday. After his grandmother passed away, his grandfather went into the mountains in search of consolation. Three decades on, Shen too followed in the footsteps of his grandfather in order to salve his own wounded soul.

Having volunteered at the Taiyuan Skill Training Institute, a correctional facility in Taitung, which helped him adjust his outlook, Shen joined a mountain walking group called the “Guinea Pigs.” Inspired by his fellow hikers, he recovered his own sense of purpose and started to enjoy sharing experiences with others. Shen regained his happiness by putting his computer aside and picking up again what he had always loved since childhood—his pens and brushes.

Inspiration in tranquility

For Shen, the mountains are an inexhaustible source of energy. From participating in the restoration of the Jia­ming Lake National Trail to chance meetings with guides and instructors in the mountains, slowly but surely he has learned to compose himself and has regained the spirit­ual sustenance he used to enjoy as a child. Only when our minds have found tranquility are we able to observe what’s around us and set out again in quest of wisdom.

In 2017, as a record keeper, Shen went on a mission to investigate historic trails in Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli, and Taichung with members of the Taiwan Thousand Miles Trail Association. “It was truly eye-opening.” Shen used to venerate all that is foreign and look down on his native country. During this field trip, he was able to rediscover the bright side of Taiwan and thus develop a passion for it. Going deeply into places he had traveled past many times, he started to contemplate a series of questions. “Why do we need these investigations? What should I record?” He found his answers while visiting elderly local residents. “Those houses and old roads that have been left behind by the progress of civilization are softly whispering stories about the past.” What kept Shen and his colleagues going, despite the arduousness of the mission, was a sense of duty, of having to ensure the survival of traditions.

Through his art, Shen has carefully documented the history and evolution of the Raknus Selu Trail. With his characteristically meticulous attention to detail, he has lived up to his role as a record keeper. Through this process he realized what he had lacked: a deep knowledge of his homeland. As he acquired this knowledge, he went on to devote himself to the island. “You derive strength from identifying with it and loving it wholeheartedly.”

With members of the Outdoors Fun organization, Shen also investigated the Taiwan Power Company’s facil­ities along the western branch of the Nenggao Cross-Ridge Trail. He had long been looking forward to this experience and was therefore very excited. The trail has its origins in routes between indigenous com­munities that enabled trade and intermarriage among the Seediq and Truku peoples. During the Japanese colonial period it was used for security and policing purposes. Traveling the trail is like entering a time tunnel, something we all yearn for.

In Shen’s illustrations, the humble faces of Taipower workers who maintain the pylons and cables, and who are affectionately referred to as “cable maintenance bulls,” come to life vividly. Working selflessly, they risk their lives all year round to ensure that electricity is transmitted across the island without interruption.

Finding Noah’s Ark

“For a while, I was so afraid of people crowding into the mountains.” Shen’s heart sinks whenever he sees rubbish left behind by hikers: it’s almost as if love of the mountains breeds disrespect. Shen began to feel that he was able to give back something to the mountains only when he joined a cleanup on Mt. Nanhu and worked on the illustrations for a special issue of Taiwan Mountain magazine, on rangers. “Bend down and make the mountains cleaner.” Shen puts into practice the idea of the cleanup initiative every time he goes into the mountains. He also endeavors to teach children this positive attitude: those who love the mountains clean up after themselves. “We’re only visitors. It’s not we but the animals and plants that own the mountains.”

At the launch of his Lessons from the Mountains, which was accompanied by a display of his artworks, Shen overcame his innate shyness, earnestly signing copies of his book and sharing his experiences with the audience. “The mountains have given me confidence and a better understanding of myself.” Going into the mountains is like entering a space full of positive values: all of your thoughts will become pure. “You’ll realize how small and ephemeral you are. You’ll be able to put failures into perspective and forgive yourself for not achieving your goals.” The mountains, for Shen, are like a Noah’s Ark. They redeem his soul, brace him for self-reflection, and give him energy to set out again. Priding himself upon being a true-bred Taiwanese, Shen has been exploring how to establish connections with his surroundings in order to become more deeply rooted in this land. “Life truly blossoms only when you’ve done your utmost.” This is what he has learned from the mountains.