AUGUSTA – An art professor’s recent trip to China could presage cross-cultural exchanges for the University of Maine at Augusta and the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, which is located on the university campus.

Robert Katz spent the first half of July among China’s ancient artistic masterpieces and chaotic, ever-expanding cities where high-speed trains coexist with millions of bicyclists.

He’s hopeful the contacts he made will lead to programs in which Chinese people and Mainers can teach each other about their respective artistic heritages and the crimes against humanity that took place in Europe and Asia during World War II.

Katz, a sculptor who works largely with welded steel, was one of seven North American artists invited to take part in a cross-cultural art exhibition with several Chinese artists at Jiangsu Traditional Chinese Painting Institute. Katz’s work was too large and heavy to transport to China, so he displayed a photo collage of pieces from his Workbench Artifacts series.

Portland artist Charlie Hewitt’s work also appeared in the exhibition, but he did not make the trip.

Katz also presented his work and lectured at three universities, where he said a valuable exchange took place in spite of communication barriers.

“Even though very few people spoke English, we were certainly able to communicate our ideas through our art and our processes,” he said.

But many concepts were as unfamiliar as the language.

“When I asked them what their influences are, very few had any references to Western art,” Katz said. “We often think that Western art is the cornerstone of culture. But their influences are almost exclusively Chinese, with a very rich tradition and history.”

One student identified Vincent Van Gogh as an influence, but that was the only Western artist named.

Katz said he is mostly unfamiliar with China’s artistic past, which includes traditions of calligraphy and landscape painting that go back thousands of years.

Katz said he was fascinated by the way Chinese artists both continue traditional styles and media and reinterpret them. In a Beijing art district, for example, there are public sculptures depicting a red Buddha dancing and a modern soldier riding an imperial guardian lion.

“It really is a country that is so embedded in both their long traditions but at the same time, they’re marching full speed ahead into the contemporary world,” Katz said.

Katz said UMA offers limited course work on non-Western art, and he thinks an academic and artistic exchange with Chinese institutions would benefit students by giving them a global perspective on contemporary art.

He also hopes to start collaborations with the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, which he visited, though it had nothing to do with the art exhibition.

When he found out he would be traveling to China, Katz reached out to the two entities and offered to present a video project he co-created for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center. “Were the House Still Standing” is on permanent exhibit at the Klahr Center on UMA’s campus and tells the stories of 16 Holocaust survivors and concentration camp liberators who live in Maine.

In the 1930s and 1940s, thousands of European Jews fleeing the Holocaust settled in Shanghai, where immigrants did not need a visa.

Nanjing was the site of its own atrocities in the late 1930s, when the Japanese military raped, tortured and murdered an estimated 300,000 Chinese people while occupying the city.

Katz said there is no Chinese word for anti-Semitism, and people there know little about the Holocaust, just as many Americans don’t know about the crimes in Nanjing.

Nonetheless, an auditorium full of people at Nanjing University connected strongly with the stories of the Mainers in the video project, and Katz hopes to work further with the directors of the Nanjing memorial and the refugee museum.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645, or at: [email protected]