She gives Chinese lacquer art a French touch

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Gwenaelle Chassin de Kergommeaux, a French designer and artist, wanted to create something for China, where she has lived since 2007.

Using her favorite materials - eggshells, lacquer and sharkskin - the 42-year-old, who comes from Paris, made a series of lacquer paintings called Chinese Geography.

The project, which was launched three years ago, is now her passion.

In the first work of the series, she needle-picked and fixed eggshells on a cobalt background to produce a map of China. It resembles a blue and white porcelain pattern.

"Qinghuaci (blue and white) ceramics is a major art in China," she says. "I hope the series can explore Chinese cultural heritage and symbolism."

She later depicted cranes, the Chinese symbol of longevity and wisdom, on her map. A growing round moon is a recurring theme in her work as the celestial body is a heavyweight in Chinese aesthetics, representing longing and other sentiments.

As she witnessed the migration of young Chinese to cities from their countryside homes, she sought a way to show the changes through a pair of paintings.

Her answer: One version of her Chinese map is emptied of the eggshells and the other is filled with them.

"Eggshells are fragments. A mass of them show how people are moving," she says. "It's yin and yang."

Coming from a family of handicraft artisans like goldsmiths and glass-makers, De Kergommeaux fell in love with Asia's lacquer arts when she first saw a collection in Paris' Guimet Museum. She then picked up painting with eggshells.

She has been drawn to China for as long as she can remember.

In her teens, the shape of China in her world atlas and the fairy tales of ancient China moved her.

Chinese lacquer painting, often done with eggshells, seashells and gold-leaf mosaic, dates back thousands of years. And the country is known as the world's biggest producer and user of natural lacquer.

While Chassin de Kergommeaux has fine-tuned her ways of doing lacquer painting, the country's unique use of the material also fascinates her.

She is now experimenting with ramie, a cloth with extremely long, thin fibers that comes from southern China. It's also called "China grass".

She puts eggshell mosaics and moon images on the cloth, and also patterns from Chinese ethnic groups like the Miao people. While the Miao, found in southwestern China, famously don't have a written language, their embroidery, especially of natural images, has long been a inspiration for many artists.

"I find that many of their arts are fading out. I want to preserve some of them in my works," she says.

"I hope my work can combine both Chinese and French culture. Perhaps you can't always find specific items (in my work) but I hope the essence will be there."

De Kergommeaux's works now regularly make the annual Beijing Design Week. And Summerwood, a Chinese brand that specializes in handmade cloth, will show her ramie-based collection this October.

Her solo exhibition later this month will focus on the full moon, as she finds it a meaningful subject in Chinese culture.

"When I was little, I used to look out the window and say goodnight to the moon daily," she says. "Now in China, the most beautiful thing is when you go to hutong (old alleyways) at night and see the moon above."

De Kergommeaux has lived and worked in a hutong with her architect husband since the very beginning of her days in China. Now, her workshop near Beiluoguxiang has opened in an alleyway that largely retains the loveliness of a typical Beijing lifestyle, with seniors sunbathing on their doorsteps on a nice winter day and children scampering after one another after school.

In her studio, she also does interior design and refurbishes old furniture.

In her spare time, she goes looking for antiques. But not to Panjiayuan, the well-known flea market that has turned touristy.

"I have my secret place in Beijing and I won't tell," she says with a mischievous smile.

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