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Digging through China

The Dana Gallery shows the coolest vacation slide show ever

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Dudley Dana and his wife, Candace Crosby, knew this trip was going to be different. They knew because they were going to China for three weeks and that’s a pretty huge deal by itself, and they knew because they were going along with a group of six other renowned artists as the guests of Zhiwei Tu, president of the Oil Painters of America and a legend in his native country.

“The night before we left I actually turned to Candace and said, ‘Let’s just go Havre and hang out,’” recalls Dudley of the pre-trip intimidation. “I was serious, too.”

Dudley and Candace knew this wasn’t going to be a normal vacation, but even with that understanding going in, things got weird fast. And weird in a good way. Candace calls it the “We’re not in Kansas anymore” sequence: A 16-hour flight from Missoula to Minneapolis to Chicago to Hong Kong led to a two-hour train ride to the city of Guangzhou and lunch at a McDonald’s where three waiters took the group of artists’ orders at a cloth-draped table. Then the documentary film crew arrived. Then the police escort. Then the artists, the film crew and Zhiwei—his presence being the main reason for all the fuss; except at McDonald’s, where the formality is normal—hopped on a bus and followed the police escort for two-and-a-half hours to a hotel where more than 25 hotel staff, dignitaries and personal translators greeted them in the courtyard with bouquets of flowers and a welcome banner. As if that wasn’t enough of a whirlwind, the artists were told they had 10 minutes to get ready before commencement of the evening’s formal banquet, which was being held in their honor.

“It was like that pretty much the whole three weeks,” says Dudley. “People just kept coming out of the woodwork. At one point there was a fashion photographer who followed Zhiwei for a few days…It was like that all the time, like he was a rock star. It was bizarre to be around.”

Havre it wasn’t, and things hardly slowed down from there. Every day, Zhiwei, whom Dudley and Candace first met when the Dana Gallery hosted the national juried OPA show last summer, ushered his American guests across the countryside, from remote villages to small cities; they even stopped at the Shiaoguan City Museum where a wing bearing Zhiwei’s name opened last year. Every morning, Dudley says, someone would board the group’s bus and announce, “The plan for the day has changed.” It got to the point, Dudley says, that he wanted to learn how to say the phrase in Chinese.

“It became part of the trip, just adding to the mystery,” says Candace. “Everything was a discovery.”

In fact, that’s what turned the already promising trek into such a memorable adventure. The best vacations are typically ones when itineraries become irrelevant, chance reigns and good fortune prevails. And Dudley and Candace experienced that in abundance.

Even better, they’re ready to share the experience in what amounts to one of the coolest vacation slide shows ever. Before leaving, Dudley had hoped to have the seven artists show their finished paintings at his gallery, but he wanted to get a sense of the work before making any commitments. Early on it became apparent the show would be a major score. While the daily schedule may have been constantly changing, it was rarely altered in a way that prevented the artists from completing a blistering two paintings per day. The plein air works—meaning paintings created on-site, outdoors and, due to Zhiwei’s popularity, usually in front of massive crowds—weren’t just plentiful, but gorgeous. On First Friday, the Dana Gallery features more than 50 examples. Six artists from the trip will also be in attendance, including Zhiwei.

In addition to exploring the country to create their own work, the artists traveled to five universities where students study Zhiwei’s techniques. This presented the opportunity for Dudley to discover new talent previously unseen in the United States. He was particularly drawn to the work of Tu Gang, an architect and aspiring oil painter whose style features thick brush strokes, vibrant colors and abstract landscapes. Dudley purchased four of Tu’s smaller works to bring back from the trip, and has since received four larger canvases from the artist, all of which will also be on display for the April show.

From talking with Dudley and Candace, it’s clear their trip to China turned out to be much more than the seed of an exceptional art show. As the group’s only two non-painters—Dudley is an
award-winning photographer, Candace an accomplished writer—they were free to explore the villages and speak with the locals while the others painted. Since the two returned in mid-November, Dudley has spent numerous evenings editing and arranging thousands of shots from the trip, many of which will be on display in the gallery to complement the exhibit. Candace has already published an article about their travels in Art of the West magazine, and her writing will accompany Dudley’s photographs in the gallery.

“It was a life-changing experience,” says Candace in between anecdotes illustrating the culture, people and politics of a country often unfairly stereotyped in America. “What we learned about everything over there, I think, wasn’t that it’s perfect, but that China is a beautiful place, with beautiful people so eager to learn more and more about us…This show is a way for us to bring some of that back here.”

East Meets West debuts at the Dana Gallery during First Friday, April 6, with a reception beginning at 5 PM. On Saturday, April 7, Zhiwei Tu, Scott Tallman Powers and Ken Cadwallader will perform a painting demonstration in the gallery at 10 AM. Both events are free.

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