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How this St. Petersburg art exhibit came together from a seed of an idea

“From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier” was conceived and executed by the James Museum’s curator.
 
"From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier," an exhibition at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, details the history of Chinese immigrants who helped build the American West.
"From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier," an exhibition at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, details the history of Chinese immigrants who helped build the American West. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 3

ST. PETERSBURG — Emily Kapes is always enthusiastic when she gives tours of the special exhibitions at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

But she was especially passionate when discussing “From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier,” an exhibition she conceived two years ago that is on display now through Jan. 28, 2024.

Emily Kapes, museum curator at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, talks about the exhibition she created, “From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier."
Emily Kapes, museum curator at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, talks about the exhibition she created, “From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier." [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Inspired by paintings in the museum’s collection that depict Chinese Americans in the West, Kapes set out two years ago to create an exhibition detailing this history.

“I really wanted to focus on the Chinese American culture in history and discovered amazing accounts and perspectives that I really wanted to bring to light,” she said. “And it was something really different for the museum, because people think of Western and wildlife ... but it’s still the West. It’s still America.”

It was important to Kapes to illustrate the discrimination struggles Chinese Americans went through, and how much they were able to overcome. She emphasized how the hard work of early Chinese immigrants contributed to the settlement of the West.

Lori Kroupa from The Villages explores "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
Lori Kroupa from The Villages explores "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Kapes pulled general history, but wanted to include individual accounts, which were harder to find. She traveled to the University of California, Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Library to do research, which included listening to interviews of descendants of early immigrants. She traveled to San Francisco and worked with the Chinese Historical Society of America.

Locally, Kapes worked with the Suncoast Association of Chinese Americans. One of the association’s board members translated the label and wall text into Chinese, and gives tours of the exhibit in the language.

The exhibition begins with the Gold Rush of 1850, when, like many other groups from around the world, Chinese people came to California to prospect for gold. Kapes said the intent wasn’t to stay, but rather to strike a fortune and return to China. But soon, discrimination set in and the Chinese were forced out of the prosperous areas and made to work on abandoned claims.

They settled into their own camps, separate from the others, where they made food and developed communities that would eventually become Chinatowns. Objects from those camps are on display, as well as some pyrite — a mineral known as Fool’s Gold, which Kapes added.

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Objects from Chinese camps during the Gold Rush are on display in the exhibition "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
Objects from Chinese camps during the Gold Rush are on display in the exhibition "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Another section details how the Chinese built the Central Pacific Railroad as part of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad. They were given the most dangerous and arduous sections. Kapes said that for six years, about 20,000 trainees built the section of the railroad, partly through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which was solid granite. A painting shows workers drilling holes for nitroglycerin.

After the railroad days were over, many Chinese were out of work, so they made their way to urban centers. Aspects of their culture are showcased in “Dragon Parade,” a painting by Jie Wei Zhou from 2012 that depicts an event in Chinatown that still happens today. And the way Chinese people were embracing American culture is evidenced by a photograph of a Chinese cowboy.

“Dragon Parade," a painting by Jie Wei Zhou from 2012, is a focal point of a section in "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
“Dragon Parade," a painting by Jie Wei Zhou from 2012, is a focal point of a section in "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The exhibition takes a contemporary turn with the artwork of Hung Liu, who died in 2021. Kapes said Liu is her newfound favorite painter. She secured a few pieces on loan from institutions in Wyoming and Oregon. In her work, Liu reflects on becoming American by looking at her ancestors and early Chinese immigrants. The largest one, “Portrait of China Mary,” portrays a woman named Ah Yuen who settled in Wyoming as a landowner and gardener. The portrait represents the Chinese women immigrants whose names have been lost to history.

Works by Chinese American artist Hung Liu are on display in "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
Works by Chinese American artist Hung Liu are on display in "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Kapes utilized an artist who has many pieces in the collection to further illustrate a modern immigration story. Z.S. Liang grew up in the Cultural Revolution in China and came to the U.S. to study in Boston. He became interested in Native American culture and made a career of painting the people and their narratives. It’s interesting to see a self-portrait of him in China, envisioning his future in the U.S.

A section dedicated to contemporary Chinese American artist Z.S. Liang is part of "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
A section dedicated to contemporary Chinese American artist Z.S. Liang is part of "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

But it’s another piece by Liu, “Dandelion With Small Bird,” that crystallizes the spirit of the exhibition. When the artist came to the U.S., she visited national parks and took a lot of photographs.

“She noticed the commonality of dandelions and how they are a symbol for resilience and migration. The dandelion seed pods will float in the breeze, root where they’re landed, and they thrive,” Kapes said. “It’s just an amazing symbol for the exhibition.”

It would make sense for a comprehensive exhibition like this one to travel to other museums, but the terms of the loan agreements of the works she borrowed didn’t allow that to happen. In lieu of that, Kapes said she is organizing an online version.

The exhibition ends with an interactive installation asking people to map their ancestry by sticking a pin on their countries of origin. It instills the idea that we all can trace our roots to somewhere else.

It also has a space where patrons can share their thoughts on the exhibition.

One comment read: “Migration is a human right.”

What to know before you go to The James Museum

“From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier” remains on view through Jan. 28, 2024. $10-$23. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except Tuesday, when the hours are 10 a.m.-8 p.m. The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, 150 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-892-4200. thejamesmuseum.org.