Artist blends Western style with Eastern imagination

Updated: 2014-06-20 07:45

By QIDONG ZHANG in San Francisco(China Daily USA)

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Artist blends Western style with Eastern imagination

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. Qidong Zhang / CHINA DAILY

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.

Artist blends Western style with Eastern imagination

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 it comes 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 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."