On Friday, Sept 28 I was one of a fortune few to experience the live painting performance by the Zhou Brothers and the Chicago Sinfonietta on the second floor of the Zhou B Art Center. I sat there in the middle isle mesmerizing at the wonderful synergy of visual art and music as I pondered about my first intersection and trajectory with such extraordinary artists some years ago.
Today, Shan Zuo and DaHuang Zhou are internationally recognized figures in the contemporary art world. Having performed in venues such as the World Economic Forum, UN, Forbidden City in China, Chicago Cultural Center among others, their gestural paintings evoke a sense of serenity, passion and harmony as they simultaneously engage in the art making process. After their recent invitation by President Obama to create a painting on behalf of the US to present as a gift to the Chinese president, the Zhou Brothers have positioned themselves as two of the most important artists living today.
My first intersection with the Zhou Brothers happened some twenty years ago in the glory days of the Chicago Art Expo at Navy Pier. I was a young art student looking to get my eyes on what seemed to be the ultimate artistic venue, the Chicago art fair. It was then, that the Zhou Brothers were creating a giant 30,000 sq ft long painting along the end of Chicago’s Navy Pier. It was the highlight of the expo yet I had never seen or heard of the Zhou Brothers. As I approach the giant canvas, they were there, neatly dressed in black attire and wearing their hats. They were using giant brushes on long sticks to paint. They invited the public to participate and paint along. I took a small brush tied to a stick, dipped it in the black paint bucket and made a couple strokes on the canvas covering the floor of the pier. That was it, I put it down and just observed these two Chinese rising starts painting slowly and gently on this giant surface. They were calm and not at all distressed or distracted by the crowds.
It was there, at the pier on a sunny day, that I remember clearly thinking to myself “wow, it would be great to know these artists personally” It was only what seemed to be a very distant thought coming from an art student of a community college in Joliet, Illinois. Not a likely reality at the moment. I even saved their pages from the exhibit catalog which, by the way, I still have in my own studio. In the next few years I continued seeing the Zhou Brothers at the fair and in art magazines.
Fast forward a few years later after I had finished my art degree. During the Summer of 2004, three friends from college (Javier Chavira, Carla Carr and Kimberly Harmon) and I were looking for space to established our art studios and start a small art gallery. We had been looking at various neighborhoods for a while. One day, our friend Ruth Crnkovich, an art historian and curator who we had met in college mentioned that she was going to open her office at this giant warehouse building the Zhou Brothers had just purchase. Ruth gave me a number and said to call and inquire. So I did. I talked to someone and I made an appointment to see the space with my friend Javier. I thought that maybe an assistant or a secretary was going to meet us there but it was the Zhou Brothers themselves who open the doors to this giant empty warehouse.
There were four floors of open space. On the third floor there was a single artist studio that was already occupied. Everything else was empty. It was there at the third floor in the middle of an empty space that the Zhou Brothers described in a few words their dream for what was to be known as the Zhou B Art Center. They said it and I believed it. In fact, I saw it in my own way as they talked about the future plans for the building. It was there that I drank the cool aid that captured my fancy and excitement. After that initial meeting, we called the rest of the group and we all came to visit again. In a few weeks we had signed our first contract and were cleaning and building walls for our new studio/gallery space 33 Collective Gallery.
The Zhou B Art Center opened its doors for the first time on a cold Friday night of December 17, 2004. it was the first ever third Friday in Bridgeport and we have never stopped Third Fridays ever since. The first opening had no working heating service yet it attracted over 300 people to the third floor who gathered around heating electrical units. The Zhou Brothers were there celebrating the first opening night.
The Zhou Brothers are sophisticated and assertive but overall full of compassion and humbleness. From the beginning, they invited us to their house for drinks, for parties and for special occasions. Their fabulous studio only a couple streets away from the building was to me like paradise in the middle of Bridgeport. Incredible large, spacious and calm. Their openness to me and my family fueled and ignited my passion for their vision. There were always generous and gracious hosts.
It took me a while to realize it but now I do, the Zhou B Art Center was more for us (the art community) that it was for them. In fact, they are hardly there because of their constant travelings and obligations in the international art scene. They don’t even hold a studio at the art center. Their larger vision was one of giving and inspiration. They made us believe that it was possible to start a world-class art center in the middle of working class industrial Bridgeport. They infused by their example the idea that a humble beginning is not a handicap but an opportunity and that you never forget those who have been left behind. I have seen them give again and again, behind the scenes, to a thirsty and needy art community. Their story is unique but their desire to bring about harmony, inspiration and a common good is shared by those who, like me, have come to become part of the Zhou B art community.
So as I observed and enjoyed their latest energized painting performance with the Chicago Sinfonietta, I could not help but to think about my journey with them for the last nine years. What a journey, what a moment in time. Over the years, I have learned to read the eyes of Shan Zuo and DaHuang more than the quantity of their words. They observe long and hard during a conversation with a gaze that appears to penetrate the soul. At first intimidating but now in serenity.
After the live performance ended and when most of the guests had left the building, I exchange a few last words with DaHuang. As usual, it was short and to the point conversation. He only said a few words that would reignite my imagination again and in his eyes I saw that he was pleased with the direction of that dream he shared with me nine years ago.
That is why the Zhou B Art Center is more than a building to me. What we have accomplished so far is the result of hard work, determination, ups and downs, lessons learned, and is only the beginning. I am glad to be part of this art family and I look forward to the years to come. Today more than ever, we thrive to bring about our vision which is to facilitate the exchange of contemporary art between Chicago and the international art community and promote the convergence of Eastern and Western art forms in the United States.
Curator, Director of Exhibitions
Zhou B Art Center