Professor Kirk Ke Wang: The dream buffalo will not fade away

photo by Camille Harkenrider Professor Wang explains to senior Riley Huff how he ended up at Eckerd College

Kirk Wang saw a buffalo in his dreams. He saw it again days later when he poured ink onto his canvas and watched the giant blot take the form of the animal’s body.

Since then, Wang has turned the large-scale Rorschach test into the “Fading Buffalo.” The painting now hangs in the Contemporary Art Space & Studio (CASS) in Tampa and the Cobb Gallery on Eckerd’s campus.

It reminds him of the Chinese countryside where he spent part of his childhood and would hear cowboys herding buffalo and playing the flute when he woke up in the morning.

“I sometimes still hear those bamboo flutes,” he said.

Before he became a Visual Arts Professor at Eckerd, or even saw a buffalo, Wang grew up in Shanghai. His father was an engineer, and his mother was a music professor.

Their positions made them targets for Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a forced expunging of bourgeoisie and Western thought from every corner of society in favor of a more “pure” Communist ideology.

“One day, I just saw these tips of red flags coming out from [behind] the [front] gate,” Wang said.

Professors and scholars, among others, were gathered into government-mandated labor camps. Officers took Wang and his family to one of these camps in the countryside.

During the day, his parents would spend hours digging ditches in the field for agriculture or irrigation.

At night, artists passed time teaching Wang how to paint by brushing with water on toilet paper. A well-respected musician showed him how to play the piano by drawing keys on a wooden tabletop and singing the notes.

Wang compares the camp to a prison, but does not regret missing out on a more traditional education.

“It was better than school education where you just learn from the books,” Wang said. “[This was] experience from the book of life.”

The family was released from the camp a few years before Mao’s death in 1976. A year later, Wang applied and was accepted at Nanjing Normal University at the age of 16. He was the youngest in his class.

Four years later, the college wanted some youth on the faculty and recruited Wang. He became the youngest professor on campus, making enough money to complete graduate school simultaneously.

In 1984, Wang entered his work into the 6th National Exhibition of Fine Art and won a bronze medal issued by the Ministry of Culture of China. He also received money to put toward a cultural exchange trip.

“I took the money, and I ran out of China,” he said.

He went to Chicago, but could not afford more than one semester of art school there. A professor recommended USF to him, and he headed straight to Tampa.

In 1989 in Tampa, he protested the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Soon after, he received a call from the dean of his university in Nanjing. Word had gotten around. He could not go back to China for the time being.

Wang kept himself busy, commuting from his job at a design firm for Disney in Orlando to his residence in Tampa to an adjunct professor position at Sarasota’s Ringling College of Art and Design.   

The hectic schedule did not allow Wang time for his personal artistic pursuits.

He joined the faculty at Eckerd College as a full-time professor in 1993, accepting the position after interviewing on campus.

Now, Wang’s work shows in both Tampa and Beijing. Wang has returned to China since the country’s government changed leadership.

Yet his local presence at Eckerd seems to hold more value for him than his international influence. Student artists like senior Emily Schadow have learned a lot from him.

“He’s kind of responsible for me becoming a painter,” she said.

During a painting course with Wang, Schadow became frustrated with how her pieces turned out. Wang repeatedly encouraged her to adopt different techniques.

Eventually, Schadow found her signature style, expressive brushstrokes that would make Van Gogh proud.

Born into oppressive circumstances, Wang appreciates the power of free expression more than most.

For him, it ensures that the buffalo will never fade completely.

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