Friday, July 3, 2015

Dad's Memorial Celebration in Kansas

On May 30th, 2015, we celebrated the life and career of Prof. Chu-tsing Li at the Alumni Center in Lawrence, Kansas.  He taught at Kansas for 24 years and was the first Judith Harris Murphy Distinguished Professor of Art History at Kansas University.  On the 31st, his ashes were were placed next to those of our mother at Pioneer Cemetery on a quiet hilltop overlooking the KU campus.

The celebration was attended by around 40 family, friends and former colleagues ranging in age from 2 (grand daughter Naomi) to 95 (James Kemper).  There were a good number of his former PhD graduate students including Claudia Brown, Janet Baker, Pat Graham, Anyi Pan and Marilyn Gridley.  Many others work overseas, a number our retired and other were unable to make it because of conflicts or health issues.  My mother's closest friend from grade school in Guangzhou Ruth Wong (retired pathologist) near 90) came from California with her nephew Nick Liang as support.  An important artist friend Hong Xian and husband TC Chang (nationally ranked tennis player > age 80) came from Houston.  Martin Cheng another important artist friend attended as well.  Our father had outlived many of his colleagues.

James Kemper


On behalf of the Li family, I am delighted to welcome you to this celebration of the life and career of Prof. Chu-tsing Li.  I extend a special welcome to friends, KU colleagues, artists, and most of all his former graduate students who represent a lot of blood, sweat and tear equity.  In fact there were 78 total graduate student progeny in all who earned 28 PhD and 50 MA degrees.  This was, I’m told the largest graduate number for a single professor in the College of Liberal Arts … that is quite an academic family. 

Prof. Li would have turned 95 years old 4 days ago.  There are 3 indicators of the expanse of his life.  First, many of his Asian art contemporaries had predeceased him.  Second, a number of his former graduate students Marilyn Gridley (UMKC), Julie Yuan (UMStL), Yoshi Shimizu (Princeton), Bob Thorpe (Wash U StL) and Bob Mowry (Harvard) have already retired.  Third, there are 2ndgeneration academic progeny such as Li Junyi who is was a PhD student of Claudia Brown, an ink painting protégé of Liu Guosong, and a mentee of Prof. Li.

Prof. Li was a history buff and pleased that his path crisscrossed so many historical events in China.  A few years after the fall of the Ching Dynasty, he was born during the chaotic Republican era when his father was the #3 military man (commanding 10000) in Guangdong Province.  Most of his schooling took place during WWII.  As a high school student, he exited Nanjing a few months before the infamous massacre.  To reach his college campus then relocated to Chengdu in Sichuan Province, he had to travel by way of ship to Hainan Island and Hanoi, by rail and truck up the Burmese Road.  After the war he journeyed two weeks by boat with Mom to the U.S. to attend graduate school in English, she in Botany.  Following the Communist revolution of 1949, he faced the critical decision of whether to return to China.  He fortunately, decided to stay in the U.S., and knowing what we now know about the Cultural Revolution, I can imagine how different my life path would have been had he chosen otherwise.  He returned China for the first time just after Nixon ‘opened’ it in 1973, and then nearly every year or other year through 2007 when Teri and I took him back to his home village of Chong Hua after a 71 year absence.

A few visible milestones.  In 1959, he received Ford Foundation Grant to retrain in Chinese art history at Harvard and Princeton since he was trained in western/Northern Renaissance art.  In 1963, he received an ACLS Grant to circumnavigate the globe for a year during which he was one of the few scholars to document the treasures of the Palace Museum which were being removed from mountain storage for the first time since 1949.  He published his seminal work Autumn Colors of the Ch’iao and Hua Mountains by Chao Mengfu.  Marilyn Stokstad recruited him in 1966 to work both at KU and at the Nelson-Atkins Gallery as a research curator with Laurence Sickman.  In 1972, he taught at the Chinese U. of Hong Kong that led him to visit his homeland for the first time in 26 years.  In 1979, he was in the first group of Fulbright Exchange Scholars to China.  And addressing an entirely different era of art, in 1963 he began the appreciation of contemporary abstract ink painting that was emerging in Taiwan that literally changed the field and the careers of many artists such as Liu Guosong.  As I have witnessed, he has always had a discerning eye for new, unique and outstanding Chinese ink painting even from untrained painters.  Mom was his support.  Amy and I were the beneficiaries of these worldly experiences.  

Accolades came in the form of the dedicated conference and published Festschrift organized by Claudia Brown and Joseph Chang, the exhibition of his painting collection by Bob Mowry, Claudia Brown and Janet Baker, recent compliments of his work by other Yuan scholars such as Nancy Steinhardt at U. Pennsylvania, and a wonderful profile by Bob Mowry and Claudia Brown in Orientations.
But as I am sorting through his files, I see the less visible side behind the scenes.  I see collected dissertations, hundreds of letters of recommendations for jobs, travel awards, fellowships for many of you.  Scores of letters to Chinese art historians and Chinese artists all over the world to set up interactions, meetings, viewings, exhibitions, and exchanges.  Always researching, organizing, developing, teaching, mentoring, promoting .…

Even past the age of 90, Prof. Li’s contributions did not stop.  Two books of his collected works were published in Chinese, and an original article appeared in Wen Fong’s Festschrift.  He was repeatedly asked to grant permission to reuse and republish prior articles.  He was asked to review presumptive works of Wu Guangzhong for authenticity.  He was interviewed by a social historian writing on the development of contemporary art in Taiwan.

Prof. Li was an unsentimental and analytical person, philosophical but not religious.  And if he were here today, he would want to know what you are doing and what the latest is in Chinese art and the art history field.  His avocation was his vocation and vice versa – even well into his retirement he continued to write down every viewed painting on his omnipresent 4X6 note pad ... I’ve said that if he were stranded on a deserted island, he would ask for his library.  I hope there is a Chinese art library, ink paintings and gallery in heaven! 

Curator Janet Baker (also for Marilyn Stokstad)
Former Dean Del Shankel

Prof. Claudia Brown


After going around the room with self-introductions, Janet Baker read a passage by Marilyn Stokstad his former Chair who recruited him, Del Shankel his former Dean recounted his important contributions to Kansas University, Claudia Brown placed his accomplishments in the context of the field, and Janet Baker provided a heartfelt view of his effect on her career.  I read a statement from Yoshi Shimizu who received his MA under my father before finishing his PhD in Japanese Art and entire teaching career at Princeton.

We then had statements from the family - son Ben, daughter Rachel, husband John, kids Jack and Naomi, and sister Amy and son Daniel (who graduated from KU).  Rachel spoke of her memories of him, Ben read a letter of advice his grandfather had written to him.  I read the comments below:

B's comments

My personal comments reflect the last years of Dad’s life.  As many of you are aware, I cared for Dad the last 3 years of his life when he lived down the hall, responsible for him 22/7.  After repeated falls in his apartment when he no longer called me, towards the end I placed him in assisted living against his will ... ‘Teri always promised me I wouldn’t have to go to a nursing home’  ‘Dad, Teri is no longer with us and I am still working full time.’

Dad required a walker and could live by himself but needed food, transportation, and full administrative support.  Early on he was able to read daily Chinese World Journal and the Sunday NY Times with me, watch Turner classic movies, and work on his autobiography.  He became progressively more confused occasionally wandering off.  The past - art history and early memories (street addresses of places he lived 65 years ago confirmed on google street view) – was alive and intact.  Over the last year of his life, he was unable to do these things and spoke less and less, his short-term memory increasingly impaired, perhaps depressed, but never uttering a word of self-reflection or self-pity.  He remained an indomitable optimist about life.

Two anecdotes illustrate this optimism.  One, he kept telling me that the Mongolian prime minister was coming to deliver a potion that would restore his mind and memory to the age of 65.  I responded, I needed it too, even though I was not yet 65.  Two, he once asked how far the science of prolonging life had advanced as he wanted live to 130 years in order to complete all his conceived academic projects.

Personally speaking, Dad was absent both physically and emotionally as my father.  I have no memories of hugs from the time I can remember, no memories of father-son activities (always with friends’ fathers), and no memories of a single word of praise in my lifetime.  I do recall him typing every night to 2 am that put me asleep, and, unhappily visiting innumerable museums as a child.  I do recall 20 years of searching for a father-mentor figure during school, college, medical school, residency and fellowship.  I do understand that it was partly his Chinese culture, partly that era, and partly his personality developed while attending boarding school from an early age of 8.  I also now understand too well that he gave his all to his scholarly work, to the understanding of contemporary ink painting, and especially to his many graduate students, but it still left an empty space in me.

Over the past 3 years since Teri passed, Dad and I became closer, he dependent upon me and he the center of my life.  I took him walker and all to his favorite Vancouver three times for 10 weeks, to New Jersey see his 2ndgreat grandchild Naomi, sister of Jack, and to KC and Lawrence to be honored at the Nelson Gallery and to visit friends in Lawrence – not without significant snafus.  I came to appreciate that he left his legacy through his research, through his academic progeny, and that through his distinct eye, left the world a more beautiful place.  So, at the end, the empty space in my heart became filled with these recent son-father memories even though he was not at his best.  I grew to accept him, come to peace with him and to love him.  I miss him. 

John, Rachel, Naomi, Jack Cullvan, B & Ben Li, Amy & Daniel Lee

Books, photomontage, and food

Kris Ercums the Asian Art Curator at the Spencer Museum organized a display of many of his published books and catalogs - that were used.  It the background I and a daughter of a friend made a continuous photomontage beginning with his young adult life, family, colleagues, artists, books he wrote, and paintings he either researched or collected, accompanied by the Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven.  The food was Indian (had to be ethnic) and quite good but my father would probably not have relished the non-Chinese cuisine.

Thanks to:

Teri Li my wife who passed away in 2011, who took care of him remotely after my mother died and moved him to Milwaukee in an apartment down the hall from us and set up his medical team
Norman and Helen Gee who looked in on him weekly, took him to appointments, rescued him from falls, fixed the house and cleared his house with me

Marilyn Gridley who provided support in Kansas

Ted Kurana who also provided support during crises in Kansas

Tony Lam who looked in on him regularly and brought food in Milwaukee

For this memorial thanks to:

Janet Baker who contacted former graduate students

Rachel my daughter who organized menu; Ben my son for scanning all the photos

Sarah Wong who put the photo montage together
John Kennedy, Director of East Asian Studies Center for obtaining the Alumni Center for this special day