OREM -- A remarkable exhibit at Utah Valley University showcases works created during China's Cultural Revolution. It was a period in which artists were threatened with arrest, even death.
How the artwork survived massive government crackdowns during the 1960s in China remains a mystery. Many paintings, watercolors and wood carving prints were hidden for decades.
During those times like the Cultural Revolution ... if you were a senior artist or an academic or an intellectual, you were being beaten, tortured and sent to labor camps. It's amazing what they did to even preserve their art.
–Dodge Billingsley, photojournalist
Dodge Billingsley, a war correspondent and award-winning photojournalist, became an art collector during his world travels. In some cases, he spent days trying to talk the Chinese artists into letting him buy their art.
"During those times like the Cultural Revolution, when most artists ... if you were a senior artist or an academic or an intellectual, you were being beaten, tortured and sent to labor camps. It's amazing what they did to even preserve their art," Billingsley says.
"I've heard estimates that 80 percent of the art in China was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution," he continued. "I don't know how they quantify that, but we hear that estimate, that figure thrown out when I'm in China. Some of these artists, like Jin Zhilin, who are now in their 80s, they broke open their floor boards; they talk about stuffing their paintings in there, nailing it down, going back to their home 14 years later. His survived, a lot of them lost all their art."
Some of those pieces that survived are now on exhibit at Utah Valley University's Woodbury Art Museum.
The works date from 1958 to 1985, when the artists captured the rise of Mao Zedong and his policies. The Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, was a period of widespread persecution and destruction of the culture.
Song Ruxin, a Chinese artist who accompanied his works to Utah, says he remembers as a child believing he had a gift. Despite receiving international recognition now, he says he only ever painted what he saw: workers, small towns, farms.
But Ruxin wasn't always safe. Through a translator, he shared the fear he felt.
If I have something, make some mistake, not something the government wants, maybe they will make some punishment. I feared when one leader chose to say something about me.
–Song Ruxin, artist
"If I have something, make some mistake, not something the government wants, maybe they will make some punishment," Ruxin said. "I feared when one leader chose to say something about me, but I was apparently not important enough then."
Billingsley says it was literally painful for these artists to express themselves if they went contrary to party politics -- and for a while, party politics changed constantly.
Even creating art officials wanted was challenging. The artists had to be so careful with their images of Mao, for fear of being arrested and sent to prison, that many of them used government-approved photographs, pasting them onto their artwork.
Called the "Red Period" in China, art of the Cultural Revolution has now become accepted, even popular.
"Actually, it's kind of hot right now to collect red art in China," Billingsley says. "Jin sold a piece last year for $2 million to a Chinese collector."
For those who will visit to the exhibit, Billingsley hopes visitors can grasp some of the history.
"You can, through the images and the little stories that are attached to each image, get an idea of what the politics were and what life was like in China," he says.
To many Chinese today, Billingsley says the Cultural Revolution remains a painful part of that nation's modern history, but a part of history beautifully preserved by those who survived to capture it.
Art Through the Cultural Revolution will remain at the Woodbury Art Museum, which is located inside University Mall, through Dec. 17. CLICK HERE for more information.