‘I could see the personality and expression on their faces’: How one artist found inspiration in the Kansas Prairie

Zhang Hongtu expands the way in which viewers perceive the world around them, drawing connections between cultures. He has created a picture with cranes, which symbolizes longevity in Chinese culture, flying over a bison, which symbolizes life. Zhang visited the Beach Museum of Art on Oct. 10, 2019. (Dylan Connell | Collegian Media Group)

Throughout history, the Kansas Plains and Prairies have inspired several people in many different ways. For Zhang Hongtu, it has been through art.

A native of China, Hongtu is a Prairie Studies Institute artist-in-residence and gave a talk regarding his experiences with the prairie on Thursday at the Beach Museum of Art.

The bison and beauty of the plains inspired Hongtu during a trip to Manhattan in 2018.

Since his first trip to Kansas, Hongtu said he has been back three times — each time he visited a different area to learn more about the plains.

Some of Hongtu’s work in the prairie series is the result of exploring technology to create art.

“With digital media and my iPad, I have been able to increase detail and create different techniques and also blend different mediums that I normally wouldn’t be able to,” Hongtu said.

In exploring this option, Hongtu said he found it can blend his photography with his art skills. One piece in this series included a digital image of a car’s side view mirror looking back with a bison standing outside of a painted car.

Hungto spoke about his experience with bison on the prairie.

“As the bison would get closer to our car, I could see the personality and expression on their faces,” Hongtu said. “Bison are a symbol of nature and of the earth. We as human beings are also symbols of nature, but we also can destroy nature and the beauty of it. This is why some of my paintings include an image of bison with a city skyline added into it.”

Hongtu’s series on the Kansas bison is transfused with his experiences in China and in cities. Hongtu told a story of an emperor who had cranes flying over the palace when he became ruler.

“Cranes in China are a symbol of good omen,” Hongtu said. “So when they were flying over the emperor’s palace, he painted it as a sign of good omen.”

Fascinated by this, Hongtu took this painting and replaced the palace with a bison. This recreation of a classical Chinese painting, Hongtu said, creates a poetic metaphor of the bison and gives the classical visual Chinese language a contemporary spin.

“Bison are inspiring to me,” Hongtu said. “The bison are a great representation of the Earth. Not just an animal but a symbol of Earth and the way that it enriches the content of art.”