Painter Xuemei Li’s paintings have followed an unconventional route from Beijing to Kansas City.

China Cup 

Painter Xuemei Li’s paintings have followed an unconventional route from Beijing to Kansas City.

Jill Erickson, who opened Cup and Saucer on Delaware Street in 1997, wants to do something "besides just selling coffee." So in addition to holding open-mic nights and booking musical acts -- pushing tables aside to make room for rockers like Big Iron and country bands such as Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys -- she's brought in artists to show their work every month for the past five years.

But Xuemei Li, September's artist of the month, will miss her own art opening. Only her canvasses have traveled to Kansas City from Beijing -- which makes for a striking departure from typical coffee-shop art shows. Usually, such shows give the artists who stand in café lines a chance to exhibit what they've been working on, while creating an atmosphere reflective of the communities that form over scones and espresso.

Erickson is thrilled about the show. "We're like the band that plays really good music but can't get the radio to play our stuff," she says.

Hidden as it is next to a sparsely populated canoe shop and Function Junction in the River Market, Cup and Saucer isn't an obvious venue for an up-and-coming Chinese painter (winner of the China Art Gallery's 1997 Best Still-Life Painting award) to begin showing her work on this side of the Pacific. But according to painter Matt Blake, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Blake, who works at a local technology firm with Xuemei's brother, Winston, was stunned when he saw Xuemei's art. "When I look at her work, it's like, 'I wish I could do that.' It's total envy, but in a good way."

What stands out, he says, is her brushstroke. "I'm not Mister Knowledgeable Art Guy, but from a technical standpoint, I know what it takes. The movements in her paintings look effortless. There's no struggle." Xuemei's style, influenced by impressionism and expressionism, reveals her interest in how light transforms objects; it's a fascination she developed watching her father arrange stage lighting in theaters.

When Blake began helping his coworker find a venue for the show, he took some samples from Xuemei's portfolio to Erickson. She didn't hesitate to book the show -- which isn't typical. Cup and Saucer books shows five months in advance, and Erickson tends to challenge the artists who approach her about showing their work. "I recently had a guy bring me pieces that were from 1986 and 1987," she recalls. She asked to see current work, and he's "geared up" to have something to bring in early next year. So unbridled enthusiasm is far from Erickson's standard response.

While Xuemei won't be available to talk with the people who come to Cup and Saucer to see her paintings, her brother is interviewing her during a trip home to China, and he'll bring a video back. A translated voice-over will allow visitors to hear her talk about her process.

And Erickson is looking forward to seeing in person the paintings that she's viewed mostly on CD-ROM. "Art's all about the process of saying, 'I'm looking at this, I'm interpreting it and I'm putting it on a canvas.' She's doing that on the other side of the globe. What she's seeing and her whole perspective are totally different."

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