Taste of Asia: 7 artists have a little bamboo on their minds

photo The seven participating artists in East Asian Inspired Art: 7 Artists produced dozens of pieces across a wide variety of artist media featuring subjects considered artistically symbolic in Asian cultures. The koi on the scrolls above, symbolize luck or prosperity.
photo Sumi-e ink paintings on rice paper and mounted to fabric scrolls are among the more than 50 pieces on display at North River Civic Center.
photo Sumi-e ink paintings on rice paper and mounted to fabric scrolls are among the more than 50 pieces on display at North River Civic Center.
photo Sumi-e ink paintings on rice paper and mounted to fabric scrolls are among the more than 50 pieces on display at North River Civic Center.

IF YOU GO* What: East Asian Inspired Art: 7 Artists.* Where: North River Civic Center, 1009 Executive Drive, Suite 102.* When: Daily through May 29.* Admission: Free.* Phone: 870-8924.* Website: www.chattanooga.gov/youthandfamily/senior-and-cultural-facilities/north-river-civic-centerASIAN ARTISTIC SYMBOLS* Wild orchids: Spring/grace* Bamboo: Summer/strength/flexibility* Plum blossom: Winter/austerity* Pine: Longevity* Koi: Luck/prosperity* Cranes: Longevity/luck/happiness* Cherry blossom: New beginnings/beauty/power/feminine beautySource: Online sources and "Japanese Ink Painting" by Susan Frame

In Hixson, the koi are conspicuously absent from the ponds, and there's a decided lack of bamboo. With the exception of the occasionally creeping carpet of kudzu, there's very little about the area that smacks of East Asia.

An ongoing exhibition of works by seven local artists inspired by Japanese and Chinese cultures, however, has brought a bit of East Asian flair to the middle of a business park next to Northgate Mall.

The walls of the gallery inside North River Civic Center are adorned with minimalist rice paper paintings of red-crowned cranes, galloping horses and cherry blossoms mounted to hanging fabric scrolls. A silk scarf on one wall displays a waterfall peacefully halted in mid-torrent, and oil-painted still lifes depict blue-and-white glazed porcelain tea pots.

"Each wall has a treasure," says painter Carol Hobbs, who masterminded the yearlong process of creating the works on display in "East Asian Inspired Art: 7 Artists."

The exhibition, which continues until May 29, includes about 54 works by Hobbs, Janice Kennedy, Herry Hullender, Sandra Babb, Leslie O'Rear, Evelyn Marie Williams and Linda Rugina.

Hobbs says she became fascinated with Asian artwork about eight years ago after buying a book about the millennia-old practice of inkwash painting -- or sumi-e -- in which the artist uses as few brush strokes as possible to capture the spirit of the subject.

"I am in love with the art of sumi-e painting because it seeks to capture natural forms with a simplicity and freshness that doesn't clutter the mind," Hobbs says. "Some are not impressed with the style; I see it as striving to represent nature reduced to its most beautiful and boldest form.

"[Through this exhibit], we've paid homage to East Asian symbols, and somewhat their style, and we've had fun doing it."

Rugina, who also doubles as the manager of the Civic Center, says Hobbs approached her about presenting an East Asian-themed exhibit there in April 2013. An oil artist, Rugina was invited to participate, and she says she enjoyed the chance to learn more about another culture in workshops Hobbs organized throughout the year to help participating artists create works in a traditionally Asian style.

"It really stretched my abilities to learn a new technique, in terms of using sumi and rice paper and the simplicity of Chinese art," Rugina says. "You have to paint in a very free-handed way. It's very free-flowing."

Due to her employment by the center, Rugina's paintings are for display only, but the rest of the exhibited works are available for sale, with prices ranging from $32 to $400.

Initially, Hobbs says she approached the other artists with a rigid idea of what the exhibition would be. There were size and thematic limitations. The painters had to submit a specific number of works.

Eventually, however, the rigidity of that approach proved too constrictive for some of the artists, and she relented. Once freed of these creative shackles, Hobbs says, the artists followed their own whims while still giving a nod to East Asian traditions.

"Everyone relaxed and the stress went away, and I didn't get any more emails that said, 'And why are we doing this?'" she says, laughing. "Each artist chose media and subjects that appealed to her, and I believe we have created a diverse approach to our tribute."

Contact Casey Phillips at [email protected] or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.