Walk into the headquarters of the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), located above Taipei Main Station, and your attention will immediately be drawn to the many paintings hung on the walls of offices, featuring mountains, rivers, small boats and a fisherman’s palm-bark rain cape.
Most of these paintings are the work of Lu Tsuo-wen (呂佐文), a member of the TRA’s cleaning staff, who created them in a tool closet that is smaller than 1 ping (3.2m2) and next to the toilets on the fourth floor.
Lu, 62, lost his hearing when he was a one-year-old after his family failed to seek medical attention for a cold that developed into a high fever.
In spite of his handicap, Lu was graced with magical hands, giving him the opportunity to make a new life and explore a whole new world through his painting.
To talk with Lu, one must “speak” with written words. Asked how he was able to master the art of painting, Lu wrote down the characters for “genius,” and pointed at himself, smiling cheerfully.
However, Lu did not begin to learn how to paint until he graduated from high school at a special education school for the hearing impaired.
Before that, all he did was tend to cattle and help at his parents’ farm.
Only after enrolling at the Taipei School for the Hearing Impaired at the age of 12, did Lu have the opportunity to use watercolors.
At 28, Lu and his classmates applied for openings at the oil painting division of China Pottery.
Of course, the company required that all applicants know how to paint an oil painting, so Lu spent three days honing his skills, using simple ideas from his watercolor paintings and relying on this perseverance.
China Pottery eventually hired him, which proved to be a life-changing experience.
His monthly salary of about NT$25,000 was enough to support his family two decades ago. In fact, he even had enough money to buy a house.
More importantly, thanks to on-the-job training, his skills as an oil painter continued to improve. His years at the company were something he will always look back on with pride.
After China Pottery went out of business, Lu went into the crystal cutting business for a while, but because he often got injured on the job, he eventually decided to try to make a living by selling paintings.
He launched a small business in Banciao (板橋) and attracted a number of customers, but bargaining usually meant that he broke even. He eventually gave up the business and applied for the cleaning job at the railway administration eight years ago.
Unable to give up his passion for painting, Lu soon turned the tool closet — filled with cleaning tools and other sundries — into an art studio.
Railway employees found out about his activities by accident. Soon enough, however, their curiosity turned into admiration and Lu found another “market” for his work after employees told one another.
At the peak of his painting business at the administration, Lu made more than twice the NT$21,000 monthly salary he earned as a cleaner. To meet demand, he usually had to spend six or seven hours every day producing his works of art.
Although the number of railway administration employees that purchase Lu’s paintings has dwindled in recent years, some of the staff still turn to Lu when they want to buy a new painting or decorate their house.
Ironically, Lu, whose age has diminshed his output, says he is not very good at painting trains. His specialties are landscapes, streets and boats.