Kuiyi Shen, who has a doctorate in art history, adored art since his childhood in China. Fitted in a Neptune-blue shirt and charcoal blazer, he stepped into the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida prepared to teach. Not about brushstrokes, but about creativity.
“Art paints a bridge between people and the world,” Shen, 68, said prior to his instruction.
He traveled to Gainesville as part of the Harn Eminent Scholar Chair in Art History program. The lecture series brings in experts to share a wide array of art knowledge to the public, according to current project chair, Derek Burdette. The events are free to attend, and speakers are given an honorarium for their contributions. It is the program’s 30-year anniversary, and Shen’s lecture on Thursday capped off two nights in a row focused on Chinese art.
Shen is currently on sabbatical from his teaching job at the University of California, San Diego.
His talk focused on calligraphic language in contemporary Chinese art.
Originally, he was set to visit Gainesville last November. The threat of Hurricane Nicole erased those plans. Although he was disappointed, he said it gave him more time to paint a proper picture of the point he craved to convey. Shen loved teaching beginners that art is the world’s oldest universal language.
“No matter what status or condition, art is there for everyone,” he said. “Painting is art. Writing is art. Music is art.”
The museum’s Chandler Auditorium was clogged by 157 chairs ready to be sat in. Only a third of them ended up being used. Still, Shen began his Thursday lecture at 6 p.m. as planned. He was introduced by Guolong Lai, an associate professor of Chinese art and archaeology at the University of Florida.
Chinese calligraphy and art were initially seen as mirrors of each other, according to Shen. As the lecture went on, it molded from a history lesson to a showcase of individuals and their passion.
Ancient script rejuvenated into a contemporary style by Huang Miaozi graced the projected screen.
Then calligraphy inked into ice by Dai Guangyu.
Then traditional work transformed into digital art by Wang Tiande.
Shen provided more than 100 slides of Chinese artists and their calligraphic work – each collection being accompanied by a portrait of the artist.
Innovation was at the forefront of Shen’s lecture. The audience was shown that while style and materials changed over time, calligraphy remained a constant in Chinese art. Nowadays with the prominence of computers and smartphones, less students in China take time to learn proper calligraphy, according to Shen.
All the art he presented was produced by those of the past or modern-day adults. No young contemporary calligraphy phenoms were featured in the instruction. Taking a sip of water, Shen affirmed his love for Chinese calligraphy and his belief in its importance in art. He said training students to know about the beauty of the language was critical for future innovations in creativity.
“The younger generation, they possibly only use it to sign their name. Otherwise they never write, they just type,” Shen said in response to an audience question.
At the end of the event, the audience provided generous applause and faces illustrated with wonder. Director of education at the museum, Eric Segal, thanked the room and promptly exited. The event’s sponsor and museum’s curator of Asian art, Tongyun Yin, said she hoped to inspire people to love art through these community contributions.
“Not everybody needs to be a scholar or a teacher, but it would be nice if everybody could appreciate art,” she said with her eyes wandering into the nearby gallery.
Members of the audience were either ready to go home or ready to go explore once Shen was done.
The abundance of examples in Shen’s lecture absorbed the audience, as some afterwards contributed the specific pieces to their enjoyment of the night. Kim Friend, 65, thought the lecture was a wonderful source of knowledge typically hidden behind a degree requirement. As a volunteer tour guide at the museum, she said the night may have been full of too much information.
“He went really fast, and it was hard to stay caught up. The presentation format helped, but it was still a race,” she said.
For more than 70 years, John Stassi has been enamored with China. The self-imposed China enthusiast traveled there in his youth and said he never gave up an opportunity to learn about the country. He attended Harn Eminent Scholar Chair in Art History Talks before, but said some talks had more substance than others. He was especially excited to learn from Shen.
“Sometimes I go to one and learn something, and sometimes it just ends up turning into something fun. This one looks like it’s both,” Stassi said prior to the lecture.
A younger attendee at the event, Amanda Smith, was especially moved by Shen’s talk. The 21-year-old amateur chef drew with charcoal in her free time and said she used art as a vessel for her pent-up guilt and sorrow. Her mother passed away three years ago, and she needed a way to release her frustration. She said she hoped to “get into” Chinese calligraphy.
Shen is leaving Gainesville on Saturday, but his impact will stay. The room was not full, but when he looked up from his podium, he saw 50 people who helped him achieve his goal: teach at least one person to appreciate Chinese calligraphy.
“My favorite experience is when somebody tells me they took their boyfriend or girlfriend to a museum because of me. It’s surprisingly the best feeling in the world,” Shen said.