SOMETIMES, they just get in the car and drive, the artist and his wife. Sometimes up Arkansas Highway 7. Sometimes up Arkansas 9. And it’s there, in the farthest corners of the state, at flea markets, antique shops and yard sales, that they’ve sought out the soul of Arkansas.
To see the work that he produced from those trips—middle-aged men in jeans and cowboy hats watching the crowd; horses standing beside trailers; children peering at baby goats in cages; a young man strumming a guitar; a girl tapping on her phone—one would be inclined to think that he was successful. One might also be inclined to think that only a native, someone well-versed in the ways of small towns, would find the proper lens to communicate that spirit evidenced by the 176 people who appear in the series.
But this couldn’t be any further from the truth.
In 1989, Longhua Xu was already an established artist in Shanghai, then a city of more than 13 million people. Curious about art in the rest of the world, Longhua accepted a position as exchange professor at the University of Rochester. At the end of the term, he was invited to stay in America through the Distinguished Talent Visa Program. He sought a warmer climate and made his way to the small Arkansas city of Hot Springs. At that time, the town was developing a new art community and welcomed the Chinese artist with open arms.
“I loved the mountains and waters, the affordable property, but mostly the peace and quiet,” Longhua explains. “In China, people were working from 7 in the morning until 8 at night, competing to get ahead. You need time and peace to make great art. That’s what I found in Hot Springs.”
Although he gained a great deal of attention for his sculpture—one of his first large American sculptures, Mother Nature, marks the northern entrance to downtown Hot Springs—for the past several years, he’s turned much of his attention to painting, pulling inspiration from the thousands of sketches and photographs he’s taken of the place he’s called home for nearly 30 years.
“The people I choose to paint are all unique in some way,” the artist says. “It’s not just how they look, but their personality, how they interact with the world around them. The beauty is in how they care about each other. Not everyone has an easy life, but they love each other, their families and the land.”
Longhua Xu’s exhibit The Soul of Arkansas will be open to the public in the north concourse of the Hot Springs Convention Center starting Oct. 5. It will remain on display for several months.
“I grew up in a city,” the artist says. “This is a different way of life. These people raise their own livestock and sell what they don’t need. In this relaxed atmosphere, they have time to sit back, visit, play the guitar.”
“I think these people always loved music but were too busy with their lives to become professional musicians,” Longhua says. “Now they have time to play together at the farmers’ market, creating beauty for themselves and their audience.”
“For the first time in our 30 years here, we went to Derby Day at Oaklawn. We were surprised to see everyone dressed up like they were at a party,” Longhua says. “All the people seemed happy and kind, not what we expected at the racetrack. All the women wore big hats like they were movie stars. It was a wonderful time.”
“This young woman was relaxing with her dog,” Longhua says. “She was wearing vintage clothes, comfortable like you don’t see in the city. I wanted to show her unique beauty. In movies and TV, everyone has to look the same. I think that is sad.”