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Chinese secret arrives in Tacoma

Chinese Reconciliation Park celebration party May 22

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Zhang Baibo traveled here from China so Americans can view his secret during a Chinese Reconciliation Park fund raising event Tuesday, May 22. However, the artist expects Americans to appreciate his secret for the beauty it brings, not to figure it out.

Baibo, a 63-year-old artist considered elite in his home city of Qingdao, China, visits Tacoma, along with several other artist from China, to earn money for the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation. The foundation wishes to raise millions of dollars to complete a phased construction of Chinese Reconciliation Park along Commencement Bay in Tacoma.

The park seeks to rectify a dark period in Tacoma’s history when city officials expelled hundreds of Chinese and even burned some of their homes, according to the foundation Web site. The park will serve “to promote piece and harmony in our multicultural community.”

The fund raiser, a $100 a plate dinner at the Tacoma Country and Golf Club, will display Baibo and three other Qingdao artists’ works: Ms. Chang Gan, a Chinese folk artist; Ms. Dai Shufan, a traditional Chinese painter; and Mr. Gao Dongfang, a watercolor painter, said Teresa Pan Hosley, Chinese Reconciliation Park Foundation president.

“We will be formally accepting the donation of artworks at the event,” she said in an e-mail. Eventually the art will be sold, but the date of sale has not been announced.

“(Baibo) has been a strong supporter of the project,” said Hosley.

Baibo practices several different forms of art, but for the fundraising event he brought only two: calligraphy — and a form of watercolor relief engraving that he invented and no one else knows how to do, not in China, not in the world.

“Chinese people have a talent to copy, right?” he said humorously. “But no one can copy it.” Some have tried but failed.

In Qingdao, Baibo (pronounced “By-buo”), lives with his extended family on a K-12 private school campus. The family owns the school. Baibo stands out from the other adults on campus because of his Einstein-like hair.

During the day, Baibo is often outside calmly performing the mundane with the low-wage workers: washing a car, planting flowers or watering the grass. During the evening, the artist disappears.

As the sun falls below the Yellow Sea, a light in the fifth floor of the school turns on. That mysterious light will stay on as late as 1 a.m. while Baibo works alone in his studio. No one has even seen him work, at least not anybody remotely related to the art world. Even members of his own family — he has a wife and a son, who is also an artist — haven’t seen him make his relief engravings.

He is willing to explain his process up to a point.

“Step one,” he offered, “ use your head and think about it. Step two, make the plate.” The ingredients for the plate depends on what comes to mind in step one and includes paper and clothes for plaster of Paris and wood. He then shapes and carves the plate so he can make prints.

“The secret is in the third step,” he said. The closest he would come to explaining the third step was pouring his cup of green tea on a coffee shop table. He took a white paper napkin and dabbed it flatly into the yellowish liquid. He examined the wet marks left on the paper. Then he crumpled napkin into a ball as if to throw it away. He flattened it again. That would be the print.

This process, which he implied is much more complicated than what he had demonstrated and varies depending on his idea, makes each print unique. While he can make thousands of prints after finishing one plaster or wood mold, no two are the same in color due to his technique. The colors are at once light and dark, transparent and thick. The prints appear like a water color painting, but with incomprehensible form and depth. Many of the works look three dimensional.

Chinese engraving started during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) when people would take prints from the carvings on a king’s tomb, explains Baibo. Since that time, the process has evolved, and Baibo takes a particular pleasure in knowing he has taken the art a further step, even more so because it’s a step no one else can replicate.

“I can win awards because my art is unique,” he said.    


One relief engraving may take up to ten years before it is completed, Baibo said. Typically, he works on an idea until he is stuck, sets the work aside and returns to it months or years later when he thinks of something that might make the process work. With each piece he tries something new.

“My style has lots of limitations,” he said. “A dancer in a room can use the whole room to dance. But if the stage is a table, he must do all the moves in that small space. My expression is limited by process.”

His themes are mostly limited to two subjects, the first stemming from what he calls Chinese traditional culture. He examines iconic images such as warrior horses, Buddha and the Great Wall. His second subject is the sea, especially the fishermen and fisherwomen that work in the villages and cities along the Yellow Sea.

The reasons why he creates the prints he does is as big a secret as the process he uses to make them. When asked to explain why he focuses on the ocean and Chinese traditional culture, he shook his head and answered, “Tai da wenti.” In English this means the problem, or question, is too big.

“I want to express my beautiful dream,” he said. “The pursuit of beauty is very important. Maybe few people can understand.”

For mor einformation, see the Chinese Reconciliation Park Web site.


Total spent on project so far: $2.5 million

Total project cost: $9.5 million

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