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Southold resident turns knowledge and passion for Chinese culture into art

A Southold resident has turned his knowledge of and passion for Chinese culture into a new calling as an artist.

Robert Oxnam’s artwork is on display at the William Ris Gallery in Jamesport , in an exhibit called “Chinese Inspiration/North Fork Creation.”  Over 40 pieces of sculpture, color photographs and ink drawings will be on view there until Aug. 12.

Mr. Oxnam, 75, is inspired by Chinese Scholars Rocks, or gongshi, which highlight natural shapes in ancient stones in rivers and mountains. Mr. Oxnam wanted to recreate that same feeling with wood, specifically wood found on the North Fork.

“People think it’s kind of easy to go out and find a few sticks and make an artwork,” he said. “The thing is, it takes hours and hours and days and days of walking. In the process, you realize you’re privileged to see all of the wood that I work with. It’s mature wood, dead wood that had wonderful life.”

To him, the most beautiful part of a tree is its root system.

“In a way, my job is to appreciate that, and expose the soul that’s behind it,” Mr. Oxnam said.

He began creating the pieces included in this exhibit by accident in 2005. He was on his beach after a nor’easter had blown through, and he discovered a nice, dark piece of wood. He removed the bark and let it dry for a few days, then went to the hardware store to find something that would bring out the wood’s intense, natural colors. That’s when he discovered milk paint, made with milk, lime and color pigments.

Robert Oxnam in his basement studio at his Southold home in Southold. The two sculptures pictured will be part of his upcoming exhibit at the William Ris Gallery in Jamesport. (Rachel Siford photo)

“I wondered what would happen if I used the finest sandpaper on it after I painted it, and it started to become very lustrous,” he said. “I just kept collecting wood and started finding things that were more and more elaborate. They all have stories.”

Mr. Oxnam was the president of the Asia Society from 1981 to 1992, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public about Asia. Before that, from 1975, he was the society’s vice president and director of the China Council. He has taught about Asia and China throughout his career at schools including Trinity College, Williams College and Columbia University. He also lectured frequently on Chinese history and culture, which he still does on request.

In 2005, Mr. Oxnam published “A Fractured Mind,” a psychological autobiography revealing he has Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly called multiple personality disorder.

“It comes almost always from abuse, particularly child abuse,” he said. “I had the same experiences when I was young, and a child is told you’re getting beaten or whatever, because you did something wrong. You’re told you’re worthless.

“There are some kids who say, I’m told this happening because I’m bad, but I’m going to develop another part of me that is ‘good,’ ” he added.

He relates that to art by inventing a different way of thinking, which he calls cohesive multiplicity, that causes people to act differently in different situations.

“I came to the conclusion that I have these different parts of me and we all seem to be involved in one way or another in the art world,” Mr. Oxnam said.

The exhibit was organized and curated by Mr. Oxnam and his wife, Vishakha Desai, a scholar of Asian art.

An opening reception at the gallery is set for Saturday, July 14, from 4 to 7 p.m. Mr. Oxnam will also give an Artist Talk there on Saturday, July 28, from 4 to 6 p.m.

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Photo caption: Dr. Robert Oxnam with some of his artwork. He turned his interest in Chinese history and culture, along with childhood trauma, into a passion for art. (Eva Mallis courtesy photo) 

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