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Archive for Friday, February 23, 1996

CHINESE SCULPTER

February 23, 1996

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— A Chinese sculptor chisels out a new life in Kansas.

Kwan Wu knew his destiny the minute he picked up a rock in his small fingers and drew a figure in the ground of his native China.

What he didn't know was that his art eventually would be used by the political machine of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, take him halfway around the world and separate him for a time from his family.

Wu, now 44 and the owner of an Overland Park studio, has been selected to construct a nine-foot statue of Kansas University's legendary Phog Allen that will be erected east of Allen Fieldhouse.

Wu said he grew up in Canton, a heavily populated city in southern mainland China. His father, a pharmacist, tried to talk his young son out of art and into a better-paying field. Wu would have nothing of it and continued to sketch and sculpt.

Then, when Wu was 14, the Cultural Revolution turned China upside-down. The government ordered intellectuals to swap jobs with farmers and factory workers.

The teen-ager found himself doing back-breaking work on a farm. Stints in steel mills and coal mines followed. He then was assigned to the Red Guard, or youth corps, where he painted banners favorable to Mao.

At the age of 18, he was selected to enter the Art Institute of Canton.

"You have to pass an exam," he said. "You don't pay tuition, but they only pick one out of 1,000. It's a government benefit. It's no longer that way."

Setting a new course

While he was in graduate school, Wu sculpted several pieces. However, a review committee decided they were too "philosophical" and unfit for public showing. One of those sculptures was "Alone," which showed two women touching hands as they walked away from each other.

"It was the philosophy that time can't be repeated in life. We feel alone even though we're happy," he said. "An artist doesn't answer questions or say why, we just express ourselves."

Nonetheless, Wu was awarded a lecturer's position in 1981 at the Art Institute and was hired to create sculptures in bronze, marble and stainless steel for government buildings.

"The Civil War of 1919," a 100-foot by 20-foot relief in Zhu Hai City, took him 1 1/2 years to finish. His 14-foot fountain sculpture, "Flying," is the signature piece of Jian Men City.

But then in 1988, Wu met someone who would change his life -- KU art professor Elden Tefft.

Tefft, who had gone to China to teach bronze casting techniques, met Wu during a meeting with about 20 Chinese artists in Shanghai. When asked if Wu had made an impression on him, Tefft replied, "Not too much at that time."

Some time later, Wu's friends encouraged him to leave his homeland to develop his understanding of the world's art.

"A good artist goes around the world to see new ideas," Wu explained.

The 36-year-old sculptor remembered Tefft and wrote him a letter. The professor invited Wu to the United States, and he arrived in December that same year. Wu's wife, Ling, and his 7-year-old son, Lan, stayed behind.

"I was extremely surprised he came to the United States because he was such a successful sculptor in China," Tefft said.

Wu worked at KU's foundry and lived in a dorm room while he became accustomed to life in the West, Tefft said.

"He functioned like a student," the professor remembered.

Starting over

Six months later, hell broke loose in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of students who had gathered to protest the government were slaughtered; some of them had been in Wu's classes.

When he heard the news, Wu said he decided to stay in the United States. It would take nine months before his wife and son could get passports to leave the country.

Wu eventually opened a studio in Overland Park. Although he had to start his career completely over, it didn't take him long to find his footing.

He completed "Football," a nine-foot by six-foot bronze for the Municipal Park in Loveland, Colo., in 1990. The next year, he made his debut in Kansas City, Mo., with "Bill of Rights," a 14-foot bronze that guards the Federal Courthouse. The sculpture features 50 pairs of hands, representing each state and many ethnic and racial groups, grasping the sword of justice.

Since then, Wu has completed a life-size bronze of Caroline Kennedy; "Golfer," a seven-foot bronze at Nottingham Golf Course in Overland Park; "Eagle," a life-size bronze at First National Bank in Olathe; and "Running Horse," an 18-hands-high bronze with a 13-foot by 17-foot relief at Iron Horse Golf Course in Leawood.

"He is great in modeling and he's very fast," said Tefft, whom Wu considers his father and sends a Father Day's card to each year. "I have great admiration for him."

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