Steamer Basket, Hong Kong – Kowloon. Chinese bamboo steamer basket of jiaozi dumplings atop a drawing of a storefront in the Hong Kong – Kowloon business district. (Image courtesy of Jane Chu)
Jane Chu is an artist with a distinguished history as an administrator. She was the first CEO for Kansas City’s Kauffman Center, leaving that position to become the eleventh chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., with her term ending in 2018. Now, her first exhibition is on view at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art in the Crossroads.
In the show, titled “50 States — America And Beyond,” each state (as well as the District of Columbia) is represented by a drawing of a location that the artist visited while she was working at the NEA. Many of them were institutions that were funded by the Endowment. Chu notes, “I have visited every place in the drawings of ‘50 States — America And Beyond.’ Each place has a special memory for me — the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, was the home church of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was the site where blues musicians travelled when they performed; the Hawai’i State Art Museum has an outstanding youth poetry program. I could point out special features of the places in each drawing.” An additional group of eight works features colorful objects superimposed over subjects of Hong Kong.
Chu began drawing when she was 15 and was “hooked” after an instructor in high school helped her master linear perspective. Although she has an associate degree in visual art, she focused on piano and music in college and later earned an MBA at Rockhurst University and a doctorate in philanthropic studies at the University of Indiana.
Using her cell phone to capture images to which she could later refer, Chu “sketched places in each state, especially while in airports, hotels, and during long plane flights . . . during the pandemic, (she) drew one building from each state and a few from Hong Kong to create the show.” She prefers selecting details of buildings, never presenting the entire edifice to the viewer. These fragments often contain signage, as lettering of all kinds is something that she has always found compelling. Other times, the specific texture of an architectural element would be the portion that she felt must be delineated.
Chu begins her process with a loose sketch, which becomes tighter and more detailed as she progresses. She works by creating layer over layer in pencil; inking is the final step. A completed drawing might take between 35 to 55 hours to finish. But, Chu admits, time stands still as she works — she is so deeply and happily immersed in the task at hand.
I asked Chu to name her favorite work from the show, and she responded, “I will always have a special affinity for the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Not just because of the opportunity I had in working there, but also because of the people who were and are dedicated to making this a wonderful place for the community.”
The Hong Kong subjects have a slightly different feeling from the American series. The colored objects, such as a dumpling steamer or porcelain bowl, appear to float above the black and white architectural renderings, negating the drawing’s two dimensionality. Chu feels a personal connection to this approach, explaining “my parents were born in China, and I was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Arkansas, 11,000 miles away from my parents’ country of origin. Sometimes, society tempts us to fit ourselves into one framework at the expense of another. But me, I grew up having a bok choy/corn dog lifestyle! I know it is totally possible to embrace disparate perspectives at the same time, and that is reflective in these juxtaposition drawings.”
Chu’s current project involves collecting immigrants’ stories and asking what treasured keepsake they might have been determined to bring with them. She photographs it for a future drawing, to be presented with their immigration story. Two accounts with their accompanying drawings of personal artifacts have already been published in the Smithsonian’s “Folklife Magazine,” and she plans to have 50 stories in the series. We can look forward to seeing more of these stories and where this new direction might take her.
“Jane Chu: 50 States — America And Beyond” continues at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore Ave., through Oct. 22. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, 816.221.2626 or https://sherryleedy.com.