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(This article was originally published in the December, 2009 issue of Asia Trend Magazine.  The exhibit runs through next weekend at The Thomas Center and is well worth experiencing.)

Like many young American men who returned from service in Vietnam, William Earl (Bill) Hutchinson was disillusioned.  Unlike so many others of his generation, he was not disenfranchised.  It was 1970, the midway point between U. S. combat deployment and the end of the war.  At the age of 24, Mr. Hutchinson had borne witness to atrocity and, as he says, “to the worst, and far worse than I had been capable of imagining.”

He began to look inside himself for answers.  The search for an answer to the unanswerable was common enough among the youth of this era; that there may never be an answer did not limit the search itself from becoming a journey into the profoundly personal and epiphanic.

Mr. Hutchinson’s journey is silently yet powerfully narrated in the exhibit “A Journey Through Eastern Civilizations:  From the Collection of William Earl Hutchinson’s Theatre of Memory” at the Thomas Center for the Arts in Gainesville through January 10, 2010.

Although the exhibit showcases Asian artifacts, Mr. Hutchinson’s collecting began in America, in beach towns where he purchased seashells in shell shops. The shells resonated with boundlessness and infinity, something to which Mr. Hutchinson responded.  He collected not for possession or luxury, but for a far more spiritual reason:  He had seen the worst, and now he would look for the best.

He was looking for signs of human empathy.  He branched out from seashells to fossils, and then to historical documents and artifacts.  The journey led him eastward, to the sacred and literary in Asian cultures.  “They are often the same,” he noted, “since the best of literature often deals in revelation and epiphany.”

“A Journey Through Eastern Civilizations” is not an art exhibit.  Rather, it is about how items from everyday life—whether sacred or secular—become the art of a culture, reflecting a culture in the same way traditional art forms do. The collection comprises the prosaic (teapots, a sign from a Chinese library) and the liturgical (Buddhist scrolls).   They are important, Mr. Hutchinson feels, because they have accumulated and retained life forces; one can imagine the hand of the writer incising the palm leaf with such care that it appears calligraphic.  Even given Western unfamiliarity with the Asian languages, the manuscripts seem accessible through the person who made them; we see what he saw, we can sense his hand moving across the document with surety and precision.

The collection begins with the weightier objects.  Gongs, large brushes, the library sign, and a stunning Tibetan repository for sacred books ring the entryway.  Inside, a vitrine with bronze heads of Buddha and Bodhisattva stands near one full of texts and the implements with which they were written.  Another displays an assortment of bells; on a low shelf are examples of scholars’ stones (gongshi).  One of these is abstract and is curved in such a way that it seems skull-like, while another is clearly a range of granite mountains down one side of which runs a cool, silvery stream.

Mr. Hutchinson points out that some of the objects are not as old as they look; the oldest piece in the exhibit is around 1,000 years old, but there are also pieces from the early 20th century.  All of them are selected for evocativeness, rather than for period, genre, or stylistic premise.  The selection is edited in such a way that the scope—which is rather large—is not disintegrative.  Instead, it is meditative and peacefully dynamic.  The eye is drawn again and again to the books and documents, many of which feature a traction of penmanship not normally seen in written English, and appear even more extraordinary when Mr. Hutchinson points out a document inked in gold on a polished black paper.  Another, from Nepal, was consecrated with buffalo blood and chicken feathers.

The exhibit is propelled by wisdom and tradition.  Even something as quotidian as a teapot addresses a soothingly meditative repetition that is mirrored in the cylindrical script of the Burmese written word.  A bell used on an elephant is further signal of the vernacular civilization, and as the artifacts range from those used by millions to those understood by few, they seem to suggest that a sentient inner life comes from a steady outer life.  What you will not find are representations of destruction, violence, or animosity.

Erin Friedberg, the Thomas Center visual arts coordinator, emphasizes the “eclectic” nature of the exhibit.  When the eclectic becomes allegorical, as it does here, it is not a matter of selecting the best representations of an individual category but of choosing those objects that best affirm the triumphal elements of the human condition.  The artifacts do not carry with them a sense of admonition; they are not illustrative of Santayana’s Law of Repetitive Consequences.  Rather, they leave the person who experiences them with a need to rethink the relationship between the past and the present and the long journey we must take to get from one point to another.

Mr. Hutchinson translates the sign that came from a library in China.  It is two hundred years old, yet its sentiment transcends time:

“Quiet and Peaceful

not rushed

here in the middle

Discover yourself

here in the moment

People are easy

happy and honest

with the soft smell

of beauty on the breeze

in this lazy place

Educated, Cultivated

and Lovely”

The Thomas Center for the Arts houses two galleries.  The Main Gallery on the ground floor is a showcase for the traditional and the contemporary, as well as for the regional and the international.  Upcoming exhibits include HAIRPOLITIC: Pomade in America (January 16-March 14) and Mind, Body, Soul (March 20-May 9).  The Mezzanine Gallery is more local in scope; through January 3rd the Gainesville Handweavers’ Guild displays its textile craftsmanship.  Although an important venue for the arts in North Central Florida, the center, in a historic hotel that once counted Robert Frost and Helen Keller among its visitors, is worlds away from being an industrial arts complex.  The center is preserved much as it was at the turn of the 20th century it and has recently undergone an extensive and period-appropriate renovation.  It is an oasis and a destination for art lovers who appreciate the importance of setting to overall experience.

The Thomas Center for the Arts is located at 302 NE 6th Avenue, Gainesville, Florida.  For more information on “A Journey Through Eastern Civilizations” or on the future exhibits, please call 352-334-ARTS.  Admission to both galleries is free.

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