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Sunderland resident Frederick Gao began painting with oils in 2018, including this self-portrait.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

SUNDERLAND — Creativity fascinates most people, but when Frederick Gao picked up a brush and started painting his family was shocked.

Their shock quickly turned into awe. Gao, recently retired, was really good.

“Never painted, never did any kind of art, had no training at all, whatsoever. I guess it was in him all along. Who even knew?” said his daughter, Buyuan Gao. “We were all like, you’re really good at this. Who taught you how to do it?”

The school where he worked, Wilbraham and Monson Academy in Wilbraham, was shedding artist easels in 2018, when Gao was about to retire. He took one home, bought supplies and started to draw, then to paint. The paintings quickly multiplied. By the time he died last December Gao had completed over 150 canvasses.

Mourning her father, Gao’s daughter talked about his painting with a local poet friend, Emily Pettit. Pettit, a volunteer at the Sunderland Library, brought the idea of hosting a series of artist seminars at the library as a celebration of Gao’s genius. Library Director Katherine Umstot was thrilled.

“We have hosted visiting artist series before, but the concept of bringing in a wide variety of creative experts to lead a diverse series of workshops using the same artist’s works as inspiration is very exciting,” Umstot said.

The opening reception for the retrospective, Awing and Honoring Frederick Gao, is scheduled for May 4 at 2 p.m. in the Lane Family Reading Room Gallery of the Sunderland Library. The retrospective also includes seminars by five local artists, including Pettit. Pettit, a poet, will host Poems & Paintings & Postcards, a two-hour workshop on June 15 to compose poetry inspired by Gao’s paintings.

Pettit wrote of her seminar, “When art of any medium inspires in us a desire to make art, it is such a beautiful and expansive opportunity for connection, investigation, and discovery. Postcards will give us a constructive writing constraint to embrace or abandon.”

The first guest seminar occurs on May 7 when Katrina Goldsaito presents Mapping the Wilds of Grief. Goldsaito described her seminar as an approach to writing about grief as an unexplored land. Participants will learn about rituals around stories and internal spaces and how to “re-enter the flow of our lives at the end of future writing sessions.”

Eight days later, on May 15, Vanessa Chakour will lead a seminar, Exploring Inner and Outer Wilds: Embodied Nature Writing. Chakour, an author, herbalist and outdoor educator, will begin her presentation with a plant walk. Gao’s paintings will then inspire readings, writing and discussion.

Akilah Scharff-Teoh, a first generation Caribbean-American ceramicist, will lead a session called Liminal Spaces: Finding Ourselves Through Clay, when participants will be able to squish the clay. Scharff-Teoh’s ceramic work intersects with photography, interior design, textiles and collage. No experience is necessary.

Pieces will be fired afterward and left with the library for pickup.

“This session is not about technique or craftsmanship,” Scharff-Teoh wrote of her presentation. Rather, she hopes for “an interactive sculpting session and group conversation which explores ideas around identity, creativity, and forming your own definition of the word ‘artist.’”

On June 22 Connie Griffin will lead a workshop called Cartographies: Mapping the Interior. Griffin, employed by the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, published a textbook on teaching non-fiction narratives. Her session will break down writing into three stages, clustering, freewriting and writing, and incorporate story elements like setting, dialogue, description and thematic resonance.

Gao, who left China in 1980, during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, earned a doctoral degree in the United States, enjoyed a career as an educator, and only then began to paint. A statement by the artist suggests what a long wait it was before his genius could emerge.

“For the last half century, I have been enamored by the textures, complex tones and elegance of oil paintings, but it wasn’t until the end of 2018 that I picked up the brush and tried my luck on the canvas for the very first time,” Gao wrote. “Using the painstakingly methodical and rhythmic medium of oil, I hope my works are quiet, serene and contemplative — and that they capture my deep reverence and love for landscapes — both real and imagined.”

More information on the art of Frederick Gao can be found at www.frederickgao.com/solo-show.

dpruyne@thereminder.com | + posts