Artist blends Western style with East­ern imag­i­na­tion BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By QI­DONG ZHANG in San Fran­cisco kel­lyzhang@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Chi­nese-Amer­i­can pain­ter Ken Woo, a 37-year-old art teacher at Berke­ley Col­lege in New York who was com­mis­sioned to paint Pope John Paul II’s corona­tion por­trait, will have his work pre­viewed on June 23-27 at New York Univer­sity’s Catholic Cen­ter.

In what’s be­ing called a ground­break­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, 30 works by artists from both East­ern and Western coun­tries and tra­di­tions will be dis­played with all pro­ceeds go­ing to fund Catholic art stu­dents from East­ern Europe, China and Rus­sia.

Woo was rec­om­mended to paint the Pope’s por­trait by Rev Bene­dict Kiely of the Blessed Sacra­ment Church in Stowe, Ver­mont, where he worked on a pre­vi­ous com­mis­sion that im­pressed Kiely.

Woo also gained a rep­u­ta­tion through his project at Our Sav­ior Church at Park Av­enue and 38th in New York, which won him Best Ren­o­va­tion of the Year and a 2006 Gold Leaf Award. He was the win­ning bid­der of an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion of seven artists from all around the world.

The 24-foot-high icon re­call­ing the great age of Cathe­dral paint­ing took three phrases, six years, and fund­ing from the Vat­i­can, the church it­self and pri­vate do­na­tions.

Woo cre­ated a se­ries of 27 paint­ings so large and broad that they had to use scaf­fold­ing, elec­tric lifts and other high-tech equip­ment to in­stall. The cen­ter­piece of the work is 10 feet above the ground. It’s made up of 15 sep­a­rate pan­els of treated wood with paint and gold lead. Thirty icons rep­re­sent­ing var­i­ous saints are also in­cluded. The con­cept took six months just to be de­vel­oped.

Woo was also com­mis­sioned by the Stowe Ver­mont Church (or Blessed Sacra­ment Church) built by the cel­e­brated Von Trapp fam­ily which was fea­tured in the mu­si­cal The Sound of Mu­sic and who es­caped Aus­tria and even­tu­ally set­tled in Ver­mont.

“I’ve done a lot of work for Our Saviour’s Church,” said Woo. “The church is fa­mous be­cause of Rev Ge­orge Rut­ler at the church is quite well known and has his own tele­vi­sion show.”

“Many of my com­mis­sioned projects came from word of mouth,” said Woo, who likes do­ing pub­lic art works be­cause he is not cooped up paint­ing ev­ery­day in isolation.

Moral­is­tic projects, he said, in­volve a lot of work from struc­tural de­sign, ma­te­rial se­lec­tion and graphic lay­out. Some­times he has to hire a gen­eral con­trac­tor to im­ple­ment de­tails from build­ing ma­te­ri­als to so­lar panel in­stal­la­tions. A project might take two to three years to com­plete, depend­ing on the scope.

Born in Shang­hai, Woo moved to the US when he was five years old. Al­though grow­ing up with an in­flu­ence from his artist mother and grand­mother with mem­o­ries of “paint­ings all around the house”, Woo did not start paint­ing un­til he was 16, when he found him­self do­ing well in art class at high school.

It was in his col­lege years at the New York Academy of Art that he de­vel­oped pas­sion for art. He chose to con­tinue his mas­ter’s study at the Cen­tral Academy of Art in Bei­jing, where he found a bal­ance be­tween East­ern and Western tra­di­tions, and de­cided to fur­ther his study in Florence, Italy un­der John An­gel, a stu­dent of Pi­etro An­nigoni.

“Italy was a turn­ing point in my life,” said Woo. “The in­flu­ences from my pro­fes­sors, artist friends and fel­low stu­dents were so pro­found that I de­cided to be a pro­fes­sional artist.”

A fan of na­ture, fish­ing, hik­ing and the out­doors, Woo trav­els ex­ten­sively teach­ing and paint­ing ev­ery sum­mer. Ire­land has been a des­ti­na­tion in the past few years and his land­scape paint­ings have been shown in many gal­leries and sold in ex­hi­bi­tions.

Woo said he likes to in­clude both oil paint­ing and tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ing in his work since he be­lieves oil paint­ing is di­rect ob­ser­va­tion, while Chi­nese tra­di­tional paint­ing is more imag­i­na­tion.

“To im­ple­ment both styles in my art is hard work,” he said. “The big­ger the paint­ings are, the more prepara­tory work has to be done, such as sketches and ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign. I usu­ally work by my­self on all mea­sure­ments, fab­ri­ca­tion, and land­scape de­sign.”

Start­ing work at 6 am ev­ery day, Woo says his life is highly dis­ci­plined when to work.

“It’s a job. You get up and you have to paint,” he said. “It’s a lot of pres­sure be­ing an artist, not as ro­man­tic as most people would think, since you have to worry about sell­ing your art too.”

Woo’s first ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion was in 1997 at the AKI In­sti­tute of Art in Hol­land. He then went on to ex­hibit at the cen­tral academy of art in Bei­jing, the Ruskin School of Draw­ing at Ox­ford Univer­sity, Florence Academy in Italy as well as at the Bei­jing Mu­seum of Art. He is cur­rently show­ing with gal­leries

it comes in NY, Los Angeles, Bei­jing and Shang­hai.

His art has been shown in many coun­tries and is in the pri­vate col­lec­tions of both the Guggen­heim and Hearst fam­i­lies. He is also in the Pub­lic col­lec­tions of Mount Si­nai Med­i­cal Cen­ter, the Church of Our Saviour, Saint Malachy’s Church and Mur­ray Hill Place in New York City, Saint Brid­get Hospice in Kil­dare, Ire­land, and Saint Gabriel’s Church in Char­lotte, North Carolina. His works are auc­tioned by Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury an­nu­ally.

“In paint­ing, you have to have an in­ner con­cept un­der­stand­ing of what you are do­ing, with­out that, it’s just wall paper,” said Woo.

In a let­ter to artists, Pope John Paul II once wrote: “No one can sense more deeply than you artists, in­ge­nious cre­ators of beauty that you are, some­thing of the pathos with which God at the dawn of his cre­ation looked upon the works of his hands.”

QI­DONG ZHANG / CHINA DAILY

Ken Woo, an art teacher at Berke­ley Col­lege in New York who was com­mis­sioned to paint Pope John Paul II’s can­on­iza­tion por­trait, will have his work pre­viewed on June 23-27 at New York Univer­sity’s Catholic Cen­ter.

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