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A Place to Hear the Last Silken Sighs of a Dying Art

It is a small gallery on a side street in Carmel, California. There are more prestigious and glamorous sites in town, such as the Hogs Breath Inn Restaurant and Bar, owned by local resident Clint Eastwood, and it may be easily passed amid the maze of galleries of various arts. My wife and I would never have seen it except for a sequence of failures, and we never would have met the lady who ran it had we been there one minute earlier, or if my wife had not loved embroidery and needlepoint.

Whatever the events, had we not encountered problems finding what we HAD been looking for, or had we not had trouble navigating the narrow streets of Carmel, and finally decided to park and search on foot, we might never have been introduced to Lu Luo, owner of Lu Lu Silk Art Gallery of Chinese silk embroidery. That would have been a shame, for then a certain macho dude, i.e. yours truly, would never have stood gazing in awe at what might be the last examples of a dying art. We were actually looking for a scent shop when my wife, a lifelong devotee of various forms of needlepoint, glanced in a window. One more gallery in a sea of galleries, we commented on the beauty of the "paintings" and almost walked on.

As we were about to leave, however, she realized that we were seeing for the first time in our lives exquisite examples of an art she had only read about and I had never even known existed.Chinese silk embroidery. She called me back and I took another look at one of the "paintings" in the window. As I looked more closely, I realized that what had appeared to be tiny brushstrokes were actually threads, some of which seemed much smaller than a human hair.

Using tiny silken threads, some of which actually are finer than a baby's hair, the hands that had held the needle had created a masterpiece equal to those of any brush wielding artist. In fact, as we gazed through the window into the closed shop, we saw that many of the works were almost of photographic quality! Sadly, the shop was closed and we began to walk away, but as we left, we heard someone calling out for us to please wait. We turned and saw a diminutive oriental lady, who, as it happened, owned the gallery. As one interested in art and needlework, my wife was in awe of all she saw. As a writer, I was in awe not only of the artwork, but of the story Lu Luo had to tell. What we saw before us in her gallery were perhaps some of the last examples of an art begun a mere 2,800 years or more before.

It was an art form developed for the pleasure and adornment of Chinese royalty, but modern times were drawing a line it could not cross. Developed in Suzhou, China, this form of silk embroidery begins with a finely woven silk cloth as the "canvas", and the finest silken threads as the "paint". They are the finest threads because the artist must split each silk thread into as many as 64 smaller threads as one of the first steps in preparation for the creation of the work.

This is the first stumbling block, as the artist must begin learning her craft when still a child, when eyes and hands are still keen and nimble enough to do this well. Attempts to teach even this apparently simple task to older women have failed. Once threads have been split, each and every pass of the needle must be perfect as the artist employs approximately 40 different techniques to create effects such as fog, smoke, water, texture, or play of light. Should the artist falter in her stitches, there is no way to recover the work. She must begin again. The effects produced with silken thread can be amazing.

From the fine skin of a maid to the whiskers on a tiger's face, the range of effects is stunning.and unbelievably realistic. In one example on display in Lu Lu Silk Art Gallery, we were able to watch the morning light change to noon and dim back to the dusk of evening as we walked across the room in front of a work showing a scene in Suzhou. A skilled artist can create an original work in traditional Chinese motifs, duplicate or emulate the most famous works of western art, or convert a favored family photograph into a silken masterpiece.

As alive and vibrant as this work seems to be, its days may be numbered. The artists must begin training as children and dedicate their lives to their art. As China joins the commercial world, children learn other things and seek careers that seem more rewarding. The skills needed demand the lifetime attention and devotion of the artist, and it has become harder and harder to find those to take on the task.

It is estimated that the artists working today may be the last, and the end of the art may be as little as twenty years away. Each work demands time or artists. The larger or more complex the work, the longer it will take, and the only way to shorten the time is to assign more artists to the task.

As an example, Lu Luo pointed to a beautiful picture entitled "Tang Dynasty Polo". It is a vibrant work showing Chinese girls on horseback playing polo for the entertainment of the Emperor and his court. It is approximately four feet by five feet in size, and a similar work would require a team of five or six artists a couple of years to complete or one artist several years. My wife and I are grateful that we have had the chance to see this wonderful art, but we are saddened that in a few years, no new works will be available to the world. For your opportunity to see this art while it is still available to the public, you can visit Lu Lu Silk Art Gallery on Mission Street in Carmel between 5th and 6th streets.

You can phone Lu Luo for more information at (831) 620-1122, or visit her website at www.lulusilkartgallery.com.

Donovan Baldwin is a Texas writer. He is a University of West Florida alumnus, a member of Mensa, and is retired from the U. S. Army after 21 years of service. His interests include art, nature, animals, the environment, global warming, health, fitness, yoga, and weight loss. He has posted several of his articles on exercise and weight loss at http://nodiet4me.com/articledirectory/ . See the Lu Lu Silk Art Gallery at http://lulusilkartgallery.com .


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