Arts: What the Hands Reveal

His Bill of Rights sculpture shows American hands, but Wu Kwan knows his life journey has been shaped by God's hand.

While it seems inconceivable that Olympian Jim Ryun, Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, baseball great Satchel Paige, and Carolyn Kennedy Schlossberg could have much in common, they share one thing: all have been shaped into likenesses by the hands of Chinese sculptor Wu Kwan.

During China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao considered artists the most dangerous intellectuals because art has the ability to mobilize people of all levels and education. China's artists, and most other intellectuals, were often incarcerated or sent to farms and put "out to pasture." Even after the revolution, libraries were considered centers of potentially dangerous capitalist ideas and remained padlocked mortuaries for the dust-covered books not destroyed. But in the 1970s, as a teen in Guangzhou, Wu showed such artistic promise that his headmaster slipped him a key to the library so he could thumb through Western art books at night.

Gradually, the government began to invite artists back into society. By 1981, Wu Kwan was teaching at the Art Institute of Guangzhou, and much of the cultural chaos caused by Maoist doctrines had faded into a bad dream. Wu gained recognition as a sculptor of monumental pieces—some as high as 45 feet—exhibiting the muscularity and heroic proportions of Russian social realist art. In 1988, Wu met a leading American bronze sculptor at a cultural exchange. Unexpectedly, he was invited to serve as visiting professor at the University of Kansas for one year.

Wu Kwan never expected to leave his native country—travel even between provinces prior to 1990 was heavily monitored by the government. His only exposure to English had been during casual evenings at the institute, where an American from Zhongshan University ...

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