Ron is a professor at a Washington University in St Louis and head of the Sculpture Department as well as a practicing artist working across mediums. Catherine is a professional artist who makes major public art works throughout St Louis and the United States. Noah is a senior instructor at Washington University and is an accomplished sculptor, craftsman and designer. They will work with Mr. Lu Bin, a well-known artist and educator at Nanjing University as well as Ms. Wu Wing Yee, a celebrated Chinese artist working in drawing and sculpture. By working together, this diverse team of artists will engage in a lively exchange of ideas and ultimately create a meaningful body of art.
The City Office of Foreign Affairs in Nanjing has worked hard to secure a beautiful working studio space in the 1865 Creative Park in Nanjing, where the artists would work for a month (May 12 to June 12). The resulting art work will be first exhibited in the Creative Park before a curated group of works are moved to the Nanjing Museum for a second exhibition.
The following weekly journals document the adventure and work of these artists as this on-going project unfolds.
In this first week we are reminded of the many ways Nanjing and St. Louis are similar. The weather is the first and the river of course. The Yangtze is used for commercial transportation just like our Mississippi and the first bridges across both rivers were in our sister cities.
We set up our art studios in an old munitions factory and began exploring. The exhibition space has ghost like text in the ceiling that proclaims the greatness of Mao. We are working with materials we find in the streets of the surrounding areas. This gives us a local history to respond to. It strikes us that we are drawn to the image of the Chinese written letters for purely visual marks paying no attention to the content of the text, but the content seems to be the first thing our Chinese viewers look for.
Our student assistants have arrived on day three and we cross-town to the art supply store already. We wonder how we did without them for even three days. Two of our assistances, Ms. Yin Li and Ms.Tianyi Zhang, are both majoring in Architecture and the third, Ms. Gina Eum, a major in political science and minoring in studio art here at the Samfox school. They all have multiple rolls helping to make art and as cultural guides to the area but most importantly as our interpreters.
As we walk around Nanjing in ever widening circles we see the familiar Sycamore trees that grow here and in St. Louis. The big difference is the ones that line my street are maybe 60 years old but the ones that line the roads of Nanjing are at least double that (some as much as 36 inches in Diameter). This reminds us that both our cities are old relative to our respective countries. The river barges look different as well. Our visit to the Nanjing Museum of Art was enlightening, seeing object we had never seen before, like the human headed fish sculptures in clay.
We also made a visit to the top of Purple Mountain, which is a great difference geologically between our two cities but here the lift ride to the top gives us a spectacular view of how the city is laid out. The ancient site was used as an astronomical study center. The old bronze instruments fill us up visually for a while.
Our student assistances have created handmade posters for our two studio spaces to let the curious passerby understand just why these foreigners are stripping an old couch and carefully placing a stuffed heg hog into a glass case with a cardboard cutout of clouds. Its Art of course… Things seem to be in renovation everywhere we turn. Piles of discarded stone, brick and wood start to look like installation possibilities to us all. It has become our inside joke to say, “Please may I have this trash?”
Today we have a visit from a professional calligrapher here in Nanjing. He spontaneously demonstrates the techniques of the brush. Noah takes up the challenge and asks for a lesson which he is more than happy to do. After the lesson we have our pictures taken with the calligrapher and his wife and are left with an example of his work.
We have made new friends here who have greatly expanded our experience in Nanjing. Ms Fuyi Zhu, Professor of Architecture at Nanjing Normal University spent the entire day guiding us around the city to three Buddhist heritage sites on the birthday of The Buddha (the city was celebrating his 3000 year old birthday). We took part in the ceremony of worship of the Buddha in the presence of a relic from his body. It was a full day ending with a performance of the traditional arts of Nanjing. I ask myself, if I were to show someone the meaningful spiritual sites of St. Louis, where would I take them? I would start at the Cahokia Mounds. As we traversed the highways around the city I was struck by how crazily similar the traffic is in St. Louis at rush hour.
Everyone here seems to be interested in some aspect of the arts. A new friend from the city government came to visit us today to offer his collection of rain flower stones to become a focus of an artwork I have been conceiving for over a year now. These stones are found nowhere else in China but Nanjing. As we discuss the presentation of the artwork he is suddenly struck with an idea so we find ourselves in the art fabrication compound here in Nanjing with our hands covered in wet clay sculpturing a relief of the Buddha that will be rendered with the rain flower stones form his own collection. Noah, Meo and I set to work and sculpt a basin to hold a low relief image of the Buddha. This was the highlight of our week so far. Our work has begun to come together and we can now see the ideas we have been dreaming about.
The end is in sight and we all feel the pace quicken if that’s possible. In a flurry of conversations, details of the exhibition catalog, translations and the reception are worked out. The exhibition of North Korean painting has to be taken down from the gallery to accommodate our exhibition. This makes us more than a little uneasy.
We gave our lectures to a crowded room of students at the Nanjing University of the Arts on June 3 and again on June 4 for a lively group at the Nanjing Normal University. We have met new friends and faculty at these institutions and many ideas have been discussed over wonderful meals and the drinking of tea.
We took one day (June 8) to visit YiXing, the town famous for the beautiful dark brown tea pots. There we were treated to the ceremony of having tea and a demonstration of the traditional process of making this distinctive pottery.
Next day the installation begins as all the artist come together to arrange the work in the most suitable way. We are taken aback by the large number of people who have come to see our exhibition. The program begins in the pre-opening reception room where my friend Mr. Cia is seated on the stage with his musical saw and bow in hand. As he strikes the bow on the metal saw we recognize the song as an American song of old friendships. Once the music is over, Meo (our student assistant) steps up to the microphone to become an eloquent master of ceremony. She introduces several VIP’s, from the Finder Arts District to the Dean of the Nanjing Collage of Art to Mr. Xia, the man from the Office of Foreign Affairs whom I first spoke with about this project two years ago. Then I am introduced and give my thanks and let them know how overwhelmed we are by the generosity of all we have met. Everyone here wants to see us return again and so do we. The exhibition was full with children, artists and faculty form around the city.
The City Magazine (The Nanjinger) has printed an interview with us and the local evening news has put on a 3 minute clip of our opening. Lu Bin, faculty here at the College of the arts and one of our collaborators has put together a beautiful catalog of our show, see attached. Lots of hugs and good wishes as we depart Nanjing. We are tired, and exhilarated by our month long experience, one we will be digesting for some time to come.