Norwich receives top Chinese artwork as appreciation gifts

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Norwich — A welcoming gesture to help a new downtown business owner open a new Chinese market and tea café sent ripples across the globe, and on Wednesday, 14 top professional artists in China stopped by to donate artworks to city leaders in a cultural exchange and act of appreciation.

The artists are in the Northeast touring and hosting art seminars at Yale and Harvard universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an exhibit in Manhattan.

The Norwich stop was added when Sharon Chu, executive director of the North American Chinese Culture Foundation, based in Mansfield, learned how Norwich officials and volunteers with Global City Norwich assisted business owner Mei He, also of Mansfield, in her plan to open A&S Marketplace, a Chinese market in the Thayer Building at 16 Franklin St. The market will open in mid-May.

The bus arrived at City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, after the artists had toured the Slater Memorial Museum and Norwich Free Academy. Following words of welcome by Mayor Peter Nystrom, translated by Chu, one by one, the artists greeted the mayor and Alderman Samuel Browning with their gifts to the city.

Long scrolls depicting landscape scenes, birds, flowers, bamboo and some with Chinese lettering telling stories, or in one case a song. An artist started singing as Chu explained the song. There were also several hand-held fans with sweeping illustrations of horses, which Chu said typically sell for about $100 each.

Chu said all the artists on the tour are highly regarded professionals in China, where their works adorn art museums, galleries, government buildings and prominent homes. Professor Kuohai Wang, who presented the first gift to the city, is perhaps the most famous.

“They’re the top in traditional Chinese art in China,” Chu said after the presentation. “You can see their paintings in top national art museums.”

Along with the artworks, Chu gave the city several program books with brief biographies of the artists and samples of their work. Wang’s write-up said he graduated from the Chinese Painting Department of the People’s Liberation Army Art university and now is chairman of the Central National Association of Artists.

“In 2007, he was ranked as the most influential top ten by the Chinese calligraphy and painting industry,” the program stated.

“I am very much overwhelmed by the generosity and the beautiful artwork you have shared with us today,” Nystrom told the group.

The city gave each artist certificates of appreciation, along with gift bags of Norwich memorabilia.

City Manager John Salomone said city officials will consult with local artists on how to best show the artworks and hope to present them at an exhibit soon. Until then, the artworks will be housed in a city vault for protection.

Jill Fritzsche, vice president of the Norwich Community Development Corp., which runs the Foundry 66 shared workspace facility, said He came in looking for assistance in opening her market and “bubble tea" café — a popular drink often served with tapioca pearls and soy milk — in the space where a former Tibetan market closed last fall.

Fritzsche said officials from the city inspections office, fire marshal’s office, Norwich Public Utilities and Uncas Health District met with her to discuss her plans. “We would do that for any business,” she said.

But the store space was a mess, with trash, goods and debris left behind by the former storekeeper, Fritzsche said.

That’s where Suki Lagrito, liaison for the grant-funded Global City Norwich, stepped up. The organization was formed to help various ethnic groups feel welcome in Norwich, and its latest push is to help entrepreneurs open businesses downtown.

“Global City had 16 volunteers working for two days to clean out the old place,” Fritzsche said. “Rose City Athletics (a neighboring gym) came over and helped move heavy stuff. We just embraced her as a community. And she was telling her friends in the (Chinese cultural) foundation, and they said they would stop in and present the mayor with 14 pieces of artwork.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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