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If you live in Chicago, chances are you know Shencheng Xu.
If you’ve ever walked past the Music Box Theatre or sat in the sun beside the statues of the “Happy Family” in the Healing Garden at Ronan Park, or if you’ve ever dropped your kids off at Avoca West Elementary School or glimpsed “Gourd Man” in Village Green Park, you’re familiar with the work of Shencheng Xu. Since he began teaching sculpture at Northeastern Illinois University in 2003, Xu has been selected every year—that’s 12 straight years—to have his art publicly displayed around Chicago.
“Having your work on public display is the most rewarding thing,” Xu said. “I like when the public and kids interact with my art. I don’t want art to be isolated or put on a pedestal.”
Xu’s journey to Northeastern helped shape his artistic aesthetic. Born in China, Xu finished his undergraduate degree in his home country and taught at the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts for five years. He moved to the U.S. to complete his M.F.A. at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
“My training in China was in a classical tradition, as a figuring artist and monumental sculptor,” Xu said. “After I went to grad school in Baltimore, I changed my way of thinking about art and public art. In the U.S. there are so many things you can think about, medium-wise and style-wise. Most importantly, you have to find your own way to do things.”
The contrast between Chinese and American art and culture was so important to Xu’s maturation as an artist that he wanted to ensure his students were able to experience it as well. In 2005, he took his first group of Northeastern students to China. Since then, he’s made the two-week trip five more times, introducing more than 100 students to his home country.
In China, Xu and his students collaborate with a Chinese university to create an art project. Past projects have included a mural, a public sculpture at Northeastern’s sister school (Northeastern University, China), a performance art piece with Tsinghua University and Beijing Dance University, and the creation
of “earth art” as part of the Shenyang Botanical Garden.
“I want students to see a different side of the world,” Xu said. “They go to China, and they see their own skills and art differently. They share their art with the Chinese students and vice versa. There’s a lot they can learn from one another.”