Art history professor paints a generous end with exhibition

“I just look forward to traveling,” said Art Professor Arthur Kao. “I’ve been teaching too long and it’s time for me to retire.”

In his 22 years at SJSU and in his styling of ink paintings, Kao’s work has blended the traditional influences of eastern Asia and Western Europe, borrowing from both Chinese painting and impressionism.

The second floor exhibit gallery in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, “Miracles of Ink and Color,” is his method of doing just this: a last hurrah as a professor of art history.

All the paintings on display are for sale, and all proceeds will be donated to the library.

“The landscapes have bright, vibrant colors,” said Natalie Panchenko, a freshman graphic design major and one of Kao’s students. “You can feel the warmth and movement in his work.”

Kao said his work blends the same type of inks used for hundreds of years in Asia on a paper made from rough rice reeds designed to free the motions that oil paintings freeze and let go the colors that watercolor paper mops up.

“I layer the colors thick,” he explained. “Back home we were taught to do traditional paintings — very subtle.”

A native of Taiwan, he grew up in the city of Changhua. At the age of 15, Kao began attending a local teaching college, called a normal school, in preparation for a career in education. He explained that he found his calling after meeting a mentoring professor taught him the conservative forms of Eastern art.

“I fell in love with art there,” Kao said.

With fundamentally different techniques than those taught in Western schools, Kao said he became an expert of the inkstick, Chinese ink and the other essential tools of the medium. After graduating from the normal school he pursued a master’s degree in art history at National Taiwan University of Arts.

The university is the oldest arts college in Taiwan and is home to many distinguished Taiwanese and Chinese alumni, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” Director Ang Lee.

After graduating he taught at the university for several years. A visiting professor from Kansas University encouraged him to apply for a Ph.D. program in the United States.

“I always wanted to go to America,” he said. “He drew up an application and then I went to Lawrence.”

The export of Kao’s Asian traditional talents synergized with the Western influences in the United States produced the style that is uniquely his.

“It is very zen in its nature — to have wisdom,” said engineering lecturer Jack McKellar. “It’s rare to execute such forms in ink: large brushes executing strokes.”

McKellar, a Zen Buddhist and fan of Kao’s works, described how the works on display represent solid art.

“There’s a lot of movement in art,” he said. “It moves from inside you, outward.”

But just like zen art, McKellar said, it’s not about the execution of basic movement.

“(The art) is a slice of life,” he said. “It’s clearer.”

After Kao finished his Ph.D. he taught at Kansas, then Hong Kong. He then officially immigrated to the United States, and spent his time as a visiting professor around what he describes as “half” of the world,” traveling from art universities in Tokyo to the art program at Princeton University in New Jersey.

After the lectures and residencies abroad, his life became rooted. He married and had three children.

Kao took a professorship at SJSU and has taught art history, usually with a focus in Asian art, since 1988. He, though, only has one lingering unfilled desire.

“I never taught my brush styles anywhere,” Kao said. “From what I know there is no accredited course anywhere on the style in which I paint.”

Kao said if the university ever asked him to teach a course on his blended style, he likely would, and that he encourages his interested students to let the SJSU art department know of their interests.

“I recently did a demo in one of my Asian art history courses,” he said. “The students were amazed. They wanted more.”

Kao’s current plan, though, is not to teach any time soon. He’s about to travel.

“I recently went to New Zealand and northern Europe,” he said. “I found amazing inspiration for my art. I look forward to wherever I go next. I want to take a cruise and paint pictures of my destinations.”

Still, Kao said what the future holds for him is yet to come — just as his style has been a fusion of East and West, old and new, his vibrancy will persist.

“I love blending the colors,” Kao said. “It puts a smile on my face.”