Gallery celebrates the Tao of Charles Chu

"Dancing Cranes" by Charles Chu
"Dancing Cranes" by Charles Chu Image submitted

You may not have met Charles Chu, the artist and former professor at Connecticut College in New London. After all, he passed away in 2008. But if you've lived in the area for any time at all, you probably know who he was.

And, if you make your way slowly through the Gallery at Firehouse Square, which is hosting a new exhibition called "The Tao of Charles Chu," you can't help but absorb the graceful splendor of the two dozen works - and experience a quickly blossoming appreciation for the material and the artist. Indeed, his warmth, whimsy and humanity fairly shimmer through the work.

In conjunction with Chinese New Year, the show opened Thursday and runs through March 1 - and all but two of the pieces are up for sale.

Chu's artistic style is very traditionally Chinese - watercolors and delicately inked calligraphy on rice paper, many hanging vertically in elegant scrolls - but the subject matter is surprisingly varied. There is abstract work as well as realism, and subjects range from shrimps, mice and cranes to elegant landscapes to amorphous images that tease subjectively in Rorschach test fashion.

"In terms of inspiration, he let the moment take him," says his son, Lee Cole-Chu. "He was very disciplined in certain ways, but he could be extremely impulsive when it came to art. He might be sitting at the table when an idea for a painting occurred to him, and he'd jump to it. But before he got to his paper, he'd already have changed his mind about what he was going to paint."

"The Tao of Charles Chu" almost didn't happen. The material in the exhibit comes from the Chu family's private collection and was originally earmarked for auction in New York City. But Emily Ross, gallery manager at Firehouse Square and a very close friend with the Chu family, heard about the proposed auction and offered an idea.

"I said, 'Do it here first,'" says Ross, showing a visitor around the exhibition. Her knowledge of and affection for the works - and the Chu family - is clear in her remarks and observations. "So many people in New London knew Charles and loved him. We put a sign out front that the show was coming, and the response has been overwhelming," she says.

"It was such a great idea and an easy decision," Chu says. "Emily is like a fourth daughter to me. She just said to us, 'Hey, how about this?'"

Ross says it took about a year to put the show together. The Chus selected the pieces, under the guidance of another son, Kevin Chu, who serves as Charles' artistic executor. Inasmuch as Chu created more than 1,000 works in his life, selecting material for the exhibit could have been an almost overwhelming job.

"Well, it was hard in the sense that my father was very prolific," Cole-Chu says. "But Kevin looked everything over and made some nominations. It took a few family sessions, but it ended up being not very difficult. The idea was to show the range of my father's work. I think we did that."

Most of the pieces are accompanied by translated observations or aphorisms written by Chu or by Chu and his wife, Bettie, who passed away several months after her husband. The sayings gently and accurately reflect not just universal truisms but also revealing aspects of the couple's joyful and collective personality and worldview.

"My mother and father were very philosophical people, but there was a playful element to that," Cole-Chu says.

One of the translations is Chu's personal motto: "Don't worry, don't procrastinate, and don't be distracted. Set your own goals, respect yourself, and trust your own judgment."

Chu served in the Chinese military during World War II, then came to the United States and studied political science at the University of California at Berkeley and at Harvard. His goal was to go back to China as a diplomat. But after the Communist revolution, he and his wife settled in New London to raise a family. He quickly found a home at Conn College and in the community.

In addition to his teaching, Chu's artistic reputation took off. In 1988, the Chu-Griffis Collection of Asian Art was founded, and it is housed in the college's Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives in Shain Library. Selections from those works are periodically put on exhibit in library's adjunct Charles Chu Asian Art Reading Room.

Reflecting on the artistic legacy of his dad, Cole-Chu says, "You know, my father was very proud of the collections at Conn. And he would appreciate that, through this new exhibit, some of his work will hopefully be bought by people in the area. New London and the college made him very, very happy."

"Calligraphy" by Charles Chu Image submitted
"Bulldog" by Charles Chu Image submitted
"Fish" by Charles Chu Image submitted
"Squirrel" by Charles Chu Image submitted

IF YOU GO

What: “The Tao of Charles Chu,” an
exhibit of works from the Chu family private collection

Who: A native of China, Chu lived in New London for more than 40 years. In addition to his work as an artist, he was
professor emeritus at Connecticut College, where he conceptualized and directed the Chinese department

Where: The Gallery at Firehouse Square, 239 Bank St., New London

When: Through March 1; Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.

Just so you know: Twenty-two of the 24 works in the show are for sale

Information: (860) 443-0344, firehousesquare.com

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