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Alumni in the Picture: The Millennium Gate Museum Features the Late I-Hsiung Ju

The Millennium Gate Museum at Atlantic Station, in Atlanta, Georgia, which is celebrating its seventh anniversary, has an exhibition of the works of the late Chinese artist I-Hsiung Ju, a former professor of art and artist in residence at Washington and Lee University.

There are many wonderful connections to this show. First and foremost is Ju, who was born in Jiangyin, Jiangsu, China, and taught at W&L from 1969 to 1989. While in Lexington he established the Art Farm, where he and his wife, Chow Soon Chuang, taught Chinese calligraphy and brush painting, culinary arts, flower arrangement and other aspects of Chinese culture. They also held exhibitions of the work of young artists at the farm.

Ju is considered a major figure of Asian art. The Millennium Gate Museum director, Jeremy Kobus, said in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “ had the ability to blend two worlds of style, technique and idiom to produce a unique form of painting that is both modern and traditionally East Asian.”

That style captured the attention of Sam Perkins, a member of W&L’s Classes of 1980 and 1983 Law, now the CEO of Purgenix. As a married student, he often took his family to the Art Farm to look at the works of Ju, as well as of other artists exhibited there. His daughter, Elizabeth Perkins Warland ’99, was too young to remember those trips, but when her parents visited Lexington when she was a student, they visited again. “It was definitely a nostalgic trip for my parents and an educational one for me,” said Elizabeth, who was at the time taking an art class from the late Joan O’Mara, associate professor of art history. “It all came together,” she remembered. “We saw that painting — ‘House Mountain at a Distance’ — and immediately thought, ‘He did that painting just for us.’ Besides its amazing beauty, I think it spoke to us because of the strong ties our family has to Lexington and because House Mountain is such an iconic symbol.”

Sam bought the painting, and a few years later gave it to his daughter as a wedding present. “I was going to be living in Belgium with my husband,” Elizabeth noted. “When you’re moving out of the country and starting a new life, you want something as a reminder. My dad asked, ‘What do think of when you’re thinking of home?’ For me, one of those important connections has always been Lexington and House Mountain. And so the painting ended up in my suitcase.”

After returning to the U.S., Elizabeth and her husband settled in Atlanta, and in 2009, she attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Millennium Gate Museum, a project spearheaded by Rodney Cook Jr., W&L Class of 1978, the founder and president of the National Monuments Foundation.

Like the Perkins family, Rodney Cook had a deep connection to Ju. “I took every single one of his studio art classes,” he said. “He was such an importance influence on my life, and I’ve got his name, along with Professor Futch, Dean Gilliam and W&L, carved into the side of the Millennium Gate. That is my tribute to those who taught me so much.”

When the Ju family approached him about mounting this exhibition, he needed no persuading. “His Yangtze River brush-painting series and his scroll-painting series of Huangshan Mountain are his magnum opus,” said Rodney. “I’d seen these on display in two other museums. They are majestic.”

As well as the paintings, the museum’s theater is showing videos of the murals Ju painted in the great rooms of some houses in Georgia. “It’s a who’s who of the political leaders and civil rights leaders who carried us through the turbulent ’60s and ’70s,” Rodney noted. There are also photos of Ju, in his blue silk gown, giving Chinese painting demonstrations to raise money for Atlanta’s historic Fox Theater, as well as his brushes, inkwells and other personal belongings.

On opening weekend, the museum was packed. “I think Professor Ju would be proud,” said Rodney. “I know he would be happy — he was always happy. When I’m in the gallery where we have several monitors showing his lectures, he’s talking and painting away. It’s an absolute pleasure to hear his voice — he has such a distinctive voice. It’s a delight to have him in my house.”

You can find more details about the exhibition, which runs until Oct. 18, here.