A new Art in China
By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor
Art Kenyon had a really productive month in Quzhou, China, but he was able to bring home only three of the paintings he created during the artist exchange.
The city of Quzhou kept more than a dozen paintings he completed while there and would have bought more if Kenyon hadn’t insisted on bringing something back to Red Wing besides the 2,200-plus photographs he shot.
Those three China paintings plus a new woodcut print will be on display in his Tower View studio during the Anderson Center’s Holiday Celebration of the Arts from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 7.
Kenyon and his wife, Kathleen, spent October in Quzhou, Red Wing’s sister city, through an exchange established by the Anderson Center and the Sister City Commission. Chinese artist Huang Zuxiang spent a month at Tower View earlier this year.
Kenyon discovered a far different China from the country he visited back in the 1980s. As director of the Vasque division for Red Wing Shoe Co., he made four or five business trips annually to southern China, where industry was just developing.
Quzhou, which is farther north, has 2.5 million residents but is considered a small town. In Quzhou, he and his wife were housed in a hotel across from the university campus.
“It was about a five-minute walk to the studio” in the art building, Kenyon said. He’d go there and work from around 7:30 to 8 a.m. until about 6 p.m.
The location also was great because each evening the street between their hotel and the campus would fill with vendors who scented the air with ginger, garlic and other spices.
Mealtime was especially interesting. The Kenyons had a student meal card so they could eat lunch and dinner in the university cafeteria. Of the school’s 6,000 students, about 2,000 eat in the cafeteria during a 90-minute period.
“It was great,” Kenyon said. “The food was incredible.”
A long buffet table was filled with perhaps 50 selections, including such exotic treats as chicken feet and duck head.
The young people were fascinated by his wife’s silver hair, Kenyon said. Girls would come up to her on campus or even on the street and ask to have their picture taken with her.
“In the month we were in Quzhou we never met another Caucasian,” he pointed out.
Language was not a barrier, Kenyon said, although he did not have an interpreter during the day except for a computer app. Many of the students spoke English well enough to help out, especially when he was working with two other art teachers who became his friends as well as colleagues — Mr. Xu and Mr. Pen.
“They say art is a universal language,” Kenyon pointed out. He learned the truth of that statement.
He also discovered that “The younger generation has a tremendous respect for the history and traditions of China.” At the same time, they are increasingly tied into today’s social media.
Kenyon gave one lecture to the art students, but also saw them regularly when they stopped in to his classroom.
“They would laugh about my name,” he said, especially when a poster for an exhibit of his work said the equivalent of “Art’s Art.”
He was told there would be an exhibit of his work toward the end of the month and brought several paintings from Red Wing to show the comparison between the two cities.
“They thought my stuff was blazing with color,” Kenyon said. Red Wing’s bright blue skies are quite different from China’s often gray skies. Paintings there tend to be more monochromatic and ethereal, he added.
One of his favorite new paintings is a scene of a rural road he photographed when traveling to a village. Kenyon convinced Pen and Xi to sign the painting.
“I’m going to frame this and put it in my house.”
The fellow teachers also were invaluable when Kenyon decided to create a woodcut print in memory of a good friend, printmaker Herb Fritzke, who died shortly before the couple left for China.
Xu, a printmaker and painter, brought him a block of wood to carve an image of Chinese trees. Pen’s students helped him “pull” the prints. When he ran out of white ink, “the guys drove to Shanghai to get another tube,” Kenyon said. “They were so hospitable.”
Pen also carved Kenyon’s name in Chinese symbols on a stamp and showed him how to stamp his artwork in red.
Among the Kenyons’ memorable experiences was meeting up with William Pan, a former exchange teacher from Quzhou to Red Wing. Pan invited him to a huge all-school reunion during which retired teachers were “treated like rock stars,” Kenyon said.
“They have an absolute high respect for education and educators,” he said. “They understand very well that their future depends on how well they educate the young people.”
The couple went on several field trips, including an overnight stay in a 1,000-year-old village where he painted plein air and slept on a bamboo mat. He also did on-scene painting at a temple of Confucius.
“I learned so much,” Kenyon said, especially methods of hand printing. “I think I taught them some things, too, mainly about color and brush work.”
Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the artist exchange and the 20th anniversary of the teacher exchange. Quzhou will send a delegation here in the summer, and Kenyon hopes to be part of a group from Red Wing traveling there for a fall celebration.
This winter, he plans to go through all his photographs and paint a China series, 10 to 12 images from his residency representing the Chinese style he came to appreciate while there.
That month in China will influence the way he creates art, Kenyon said, citing the way he puts paint on a brush, the way he replicates what he sees, and the way he puts emotion into his work.
“Overall, I may think about it a little more and get more serious about it,” he said. “I realize that if you do pay attention to things that are important to you, you do a better job at it.”