People: Anna Wu Weakland: going places
Publication Date: Wednesday Mar 5, 1997

People: Anna Wu Weakland: going places

Anna Wu Weakland's studio looks too tidy to belong to an artist. With its long, sparkling white table and jars of clean brushes neatly sorted by size, it seems more like an elementary school art classroom at the beginning of the fall semester. It has to be this way, says the robust septegenerian, "so I can feel I'm free to create."

In fact, her studio at the Cubberley Community Center is an exhibit of sorts, its walls lined with examples of her work from various stages of her long and productive career.

"There are so many artists out there, one has to offer something very special that almost only you can do," said Weakland, who came to New York City from Shanghai, China, in 1947.

What is unique about Weakland's art is how it brings together her two worlds. She describes it as "a Chinese image with a Western technique."

Her paintings are influenced by her travels--the foliage of a Japanese tree here, a Southwestern American urn there--and considering she has been everywhere from Indonesia to Istanbul, her exhibits read like a postcard collection from exotic ports of call.

"I travel all the time. I travel all over the world," Weakland said.

When she came to Columbia University for graduate work in sociology, Weakland was 22. Her English was good, the product of an intensive education from some of China's top private schools.

She completed all the course work for her doctorate, but she didn't write the dissertation. While living in New York City, she started to cultivate her interest in art, attending classes and going to museums.

Opportunities for well-educated women in China were "wide open" at the time, Weakland said, and she was expected to return to fulfill her duty to the country as a professor at her alma mater, Shanghai University.

She said becoming an artist would have been seen as self-indulgent.

"If I stayed in China, I would never have become an artist," she said.

But political circumstances decided Weakland's future for her. In 1949 the bamboo curtain fell over China when the Communist Party took over. Weakland wasn't allowed to return.

She met and married an American, John Weakland, a young psychologist who later became world-renowned for his specialty, brief therapy: the idea that with 10 sessions, a patient could overcome a general sense of malaise or unhappiness.

He brought his new wife to Palo Alto in 1953 when he took a position at Stanford University.

Anna Wu Weakland's reputation as an artist grew. In 1965 she had her first solo show at the Stanford Museum of Art. She has since shown at the DeYoung Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Marin County Civic Center.

In 1978, while exhibiting her work at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, Weakland got a call from Canadian Pacific Air, a Canadian airline, asking her whether she would be interested in leading a small group through China.

China had offered the airline a quota of 1,000 passengers to visit the country. At the time, American airlines were still not allowed to land there. Weakland quickly organized a 25-member group.

She was amazed by the changes she found.

"It was so different, they felt like the Americans came from Mars," Weakland said.

She did five more tours for the airline and three others for a travel agency in Los Angeles after the borders were opened to Americans.

Her friends have been encouraging her to lead another trip, and she feels the time is right. At the end of May, she will lead a 17-day trip she calls "The Best of China" with the help of Dale Johnson Travel in Palo Alto.

Weakland will lead her group through Beijing, on a Yangtze River cruise, to Xi'an to see 6,000 life-size terra cotta soldiers buried in the tomb of an ancient leader, through the mountains of Guilin, to the sophisticated metropolis of Shanghai and, finally, to Hong Kong.

"I am a true traveler, and I love adventure," she said.

--Elisabeth Traugott 

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