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Meng Lulu: Use a nicking tool to “paint” on leather

A piece of cowhide has transformed into a distinctive art work of leather carving under nicking tools. Meng Lulu, who was born in 1989, is a skillful leather carving craftsman.

Walking into Meng Lulu's leather carving studio, a strong artistic atmosphere comes to us. Many kinds of leather carving handicrafts are placed in an orderly manner, with different characteristics. Pieces of leather have changed their appearances under Meng Lulu’s nicking tool, and she used Xinjiang elements on her leather carving works, which has also shown the unique style of handicrafts.

Photo taken on January 2023 shows Meng Lulu makes leather carving work at her leather carving studio. (Photo offered by Meng Lulu)

In the faint scent of leather and vegetable dyes, Meng Lulu focused on carving works at her studio. She said that exquisite leather carving work is not only artwork, but also a link to convey warmth and the hustle and bustle of people’s lives.

Meng Lulu, who lived in Anningqu Town of High-tech Industrial Development Zone in Urumqi City, northwest China’s Xinjiang, often went to Altay City, Tacheng Prefecture and Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture with her father because of his work. She was fascinated by local herdsman's daily use of leather products such as saddles, whips, buckets and boots.

In different seasons, Meng Lulu could see leather of different shapes at herdsman’s home. She liked to get close to herders and watch the intricate and delicate process of making leather products. Meng Lulu was impressed when pieces of leather became something people wanted.

“Full grain cow leather after the initial processing is hard, but when it is wet, it becomes very soft, stretchy and flexible. You can feel its temperature when you beat it.” Meng Lulu said she is fascinated by these things.

After graduating from university, the art foundation accumulated from years of studying Chinese painting, coupled with the professional skills of studying graphic design at university, Meng Lulu began to learn leather carving techniques based on her professional knowledge and understanding of art when she went to herdsmen's homes again.

Once, Meng Lulu saw a herdsman boiling pine bark while making leather boots for his grandson. She wondered what it had to do with leather boots. And the herder told her that the leather boots made in this way can not only be dyed with beautiful reddish brown color, but also prevent insects. In this way, Meng Lulu asked various questions and finally completed the production of leather boots with the herdsman.

Photo taken on January 2023 shows Meng Lulu uses a nicking tool and carves on the leather. (Photo offered by Meng Lulu)

“It’s amazing and rewarding! This experience is the motivation for me to learn the art of leather carving,” Meng Lulu said. From then on, she began to learn the art from masters, and after several years of hard work, she finished her studies and became a leather carving master. In 2023, Meng Lulu set up her own leather carving studio.

“Making leather carving works can gradually improve my skills and patience,” Meng Lulu said that painting on cowhide cannot be modified, carving, beating, stretching, rolling... All procedures are interlinked so you should consider carefully throughout the process.

Meng Lulu thinks that every piece of leather has their own lives and characters, and every leather carving work is unique. A good leather carving work should be exquisite in carving, delicate in color and fine in manual sewing. To do these well, craftsmen must pay more attention.

In a leather carving work entitled ‘As the wind blows’, where a little girl is wearing a fur hat, there seems to be a light breeze, and the fur scattered on the little girl's face, which is lifelike. On this only 2 mm thick cowhide, you can clearly see every hair and feel the delicate and smooth grain when you touch it with your hand.

“You must be decisive in carving,” Meng Lulu said. So it requires craftsmen to improve their skills.

She is also willing to innovate and develop new products. When she visited Kure Village in Hujierte Mongolian Township in Tex County, Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China’s Xinjiang, she found that the variety of local ethnic products is few.

“I teach herders to use leather carving on their wallets and satchels, which is popular with tourists,” Meng Lulu said that only when leather carving works are in line with the market demand, can leather carving art be passed on. In 2022, Meng Lulu's leather carving studio was listed as Urumqi's municipal intangible cultural heritage, assuming the responsibility of protecting and inheriting the leather carving art.

For many years, Meng Lulu has taught herders to carve in local places. In order to cultivate more inheritors, she also organized many activities to bring leather carving works into campus, so that students can learn the art of leather carving.

Nowadays, she has four apprentices, two of whom can make products on their own. Yao Linfan, Meng Lulu’s apprentice, is a pet doctor. After learning leather carving, she can carve vivid animals on leather.

Men Lulu said the charm of leather carving is that it can express people’s emotions. Mass-produced products cannot satisfy people's pursuit of individuality. With the help of modern techniques and the ingenuity of craftsmen, our traditional crafts can become widely known and be passed on.

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