James Kuo

Jame Kuo

37 year Professor of Art

Before James Kuo began a new painting, recalls former student Bunny Leighton ’63, he sat before the easel, “centering his mind, staring at the paper, then closing his eyes, contemplating, imagining.

“When the brush went on, it was a stroke of genius. It was magic time.”

During Kuo’s 37-year tenure as an art professor at Daemen College, hundreds of students experienced that “magic time,” absorbing through both example and direct instruction Kuo’s spiritual and philosophical approach to art.

Recently Agnes Kuo and her three daughters presented Daemen College with several paintings by her late husband—a gift that will extend his influence to new generations of students and to the campus community at large. “He said, ‘When you look at a painting, you are communicating with the artist,’” remembers Mrs. Kuo.

A native of China, James Kwang Yuan Kuo embarked on his lifelong journey through the art world at the age of ten, mastering the subtleties of calligraphy and brushwork before studying at both the Suzhou Art Institute and Anqing School of Art. His talent and potential were recognized with a scholarship that enabled him to fulfill his dream of further study in the United States. In 1949 he completed a master’s degree in painting at the University of Missouri and subsequently joined the faculty of Mount Mary College in Milwaukee.

“He liked to teach, being with the students and seeing the students develop their own work,” says Mrs. Kuo. When Rosary Hill College, now Daemen, offered him a teaching post in 1955, he was weighing offers from other institutions as well, she adds. But Kuo was attracted by Rosary Hill’s proximity to the world-renowned Albright-Knox Art Gallery—and by the  opportunity to help build the college’s fine arts program.

Proficient in a variety of media, over the years Kuo developed studios that gave his students greater breadth. He began with watercolor and ceramics, branching out to sculpture, metal craft, and printmaking, and by the 1960s, the size and scope of the program were unsurpassed by any other college or university in the Buffalo area.

While guiding his students in the development of their style and technique, Kuo continued to refine his own. In 1962 he was honored at the Chautauqua National Exhibition of American Art, and in 1964 his work won Best in Show at the Falls of Niagara Exhibition. He became one of the region’s most prominent artists, creating works that were sought by private collectors, banks and major corporations, and the Albright-Knox.

Often centered in nature, Kuo’s works inspire through subtle suggestion, notes Agnes Kuo. His watercolor Reflection #1, for example, brings to mind a mountain, rocks, and a bridge—themes familiar in many classical Chinese works—but “you don’t see actual detail.”  He championed that impressionistic approach in the classroom, according to Bunny Leighton, whose own 32-year career as an art teacher was profoundly influenced by Kuo: “He taught me a principle that I carried into my teaching: using your mind’s eye to see.”

James Allen, professor of art at Daemen, observed in his notes for a 1997-98 retrospective exhibition that Kuo’s work rewarded “all but the most insensitive or jaded viewer with lingering sensations bordering on awe and spiritual renewal, not unlike feelings provoked in the presence of nature’s most impressive places.”

Patient and kind, Kuo also left a lasting impression on University at Buffalo Professor of English James Bunn, who took courses from Kuo at Daemen and later wrote about those experiences for an exhibition catalog. Bunn remembered how Kuo’s instruction wove together art and philosophy: “There is no eraser for ink drawing,” Kuo told his students. “Just leave the mistakes. Even masters leave marks, but somehow it works out in the final composition. Just work around.”

Though passionate about the importance of art in everyday life, Kuo never prodded his three daughters to follow in his footsteps, says Agnes Kuo. Rather, he “just took them to museums and let them look.” But surrounded as they were by the vibrant colors of their father’s paintings, and witnessing daily the magic that transformed his canvases, should it surprise anyone that all three—Anna, Nina, and Donna—became artists in their own right?

By making this historic gift to Daemen College, James Kuo’s family shares with us the legacy of an extraordinary artist, teacher, and mentor whose interpretation of the world continues to surprise and inspire.

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Nick Kaczmarek

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Nick held several student leadership positions at Daemen and also completed an internship for graphic design. He recently traveled abroad to Italy with students and the department chair of the program.

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