Peter Xiao has taught art at Augustana College for 34 yeas, but now is the first time he’s had a solo exhibit at the Rock Island campus.

“Sightings at Augie” features a dazzling variety of heartfelt, often autobiographical works at Wallenberg Hall, on the second floor of the Denkmann Memorial building (3520 7th Ave., Rock Island) until March 2024.

Peter Xiao, an Augustana College art professor, with his bird’s-eye view of the Rock Island campus at Wallenberg Hall (photos by Jonathan Turner).

The works shown here were chosen from the last 15 years to just weeks ago, by the friendly, unpretentious 66-year-old native of China, who came to the U.S. in 1980 to study at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.

Xiao said recently that as John Berger puts it: painting is “an affirmation of the existent,” and “the impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul but from an encounter: the encounter between painter and model – even if the model is a mountain or shelf of empty medicine bottles.”

“Sight, and the desire to ascertain and conjure up sight, keeps me hooked to painting, affirming my own presence (with bald spot) in doing so,” the Augie art professor said in a summary of the show.

Born in Beijing, Xiao studied English there, and added fine arts to his studies in Cedar Rapids and Philadelphia, became an artist and took roots at Augie teaching (starting in 1989), which continues to expand his horizons.

“Events and challenges large and small in our daily lives, local and global, fellow beings’ responses to them, especially the young with their fresh energy and mindset ahead of your great unknown future, inspire me and keep me in the game,” Xiao said.

Raised in Cultural Revolution

Peter Tong Xiao grew up during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. When President Richard Nixon came in 1972 and reopened China to the world, Xiao said he was fooling with snakes and wildlife by a lake not far from Wuhan, while his parents toiled in the rice paddies with other disgraced writers and playwrights under the country’s Ministry of Culture.

The year Mao died, Tong, then a high school graduate, farmed and cared for pigs in a People’s Commune outside the capital.

A year later, he narrowly passed national exams to enter the Beijing Normal University to pursue English. Following his father’s participation as the first Chinese writer in University of Iowa’s International Writers’ Program (Ai Weiwei’s father poet Ai Qing would come the year after), Tong transferred to Coe College, Cedar Rapids, and took Peter (given by his British “godmother” Mrs. Tina Bailey) as his first name.

He earned a bachelor’s in fine arts and English from Coe followed by MFA in painting from Temple University, Philadelphia.

Peter spent the summer in 1984 (after Coe) working in New York City’s Chinatown and East Village with the now world-famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

“In New York City, he didn’t make it. He spent 10 years and he went back to China,” Xiao said recently of Weiwei. “He had some contacts made and in China, his art was flourishing. He was able to build a fantastic studio in China. But in the East Village, he couldn’t make it/. No one was recognizing him. A whole group of collectors – 60 collectors – from New York City were sent by the Museum of Modern Art to collect Chinese art. They landed in his yard.”

“Someone said, you should visit Ai Weiwei, because he’s fantastic,” he recalled. “He took on China as his opponent, and got all kinds of support. The entire outside world and he’s so gutsy.”

An American dictator

One of his most recent pieces at Wallenberg is an unusual painted sculpture, depicting multiple Donald Trump thumbs, each against the Mao little red book. The piece is called “Fanfare Dictator Ship,” meant to be the prow of a boat.

Xiao’s “Fanfare Dictator Ship.”

“He’d rather be something like that, like Mao,” Xiao said of the former U.S. president, again the leading Republican candidate for 2024. “I wanted to work with corners. “It was dictators, so I wanted a ship. How do you prop it up? It’s fans.”

His artist statement says:

“We seem directed by our biases to preselect, predetermine, and prejudge the goings-on around us and easily resort to extreme language to reinforce our own positions and shut out opponents because we own different or ‘alternative’ facts somehow?! That things may be messed up in some fundamental way worries and scares me, which I explore through painting, for small relief but by no means as remedy.”

Many of the Augie paintings depict the artist’s family or Chinese themes. This December through April, he’s also planning a one-person show at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport. He exhibited paintings at Quad City Arts, Rock Island, in May-June 2021.

A Dubuque honor

At the Dubuque Museum of Art this summer, Xiao won the first-place prize at the 2023 Biennial (where 543 artworks were submitted). His 2022 painting, Rumor Tree with Lightning, was awarded the prize by 2023 juror Pamela Hugdahl, which included a cash prize of $1,200.

Xiao’s painting “Rumor Tree With Lightning” won first place in the 2023 Dubuque Museum of Art Biernnial.

This is the third time that Xiao has been seen at DuMA – he had a solo exhibition at the Old Jail Gallery in 1995 and was in the first DuMA Biennial in 2003. 

One Augie painting reflects the 1972 visit former President Nixon made to China, with a TV showing Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, during Nixon’s visit to Beijing. Xiao was 10 then.

He was in Philadelphia from 1985-1989; he earned his master’s from Temple University.

“Caution Made in China” is a piece that predates the pandemic, but is paired with Xiao’s “Am no Virus,” a reference to the perception of Chinese causing COVID, from Wuhan in December 2019.

Xiao has a daughter in medical school in Iowa City and a son at Washington University in St. Louis. He loves the combination of time spent alone creating art at his Bettendorf home studio, as well as teaching in the Augie classroom.

Xiao painted himself into the lower right of his Augie campus.

“Art is so diverse now, I feel responsible to open them up to all forms of expression,” Xiao said. “I broaden myself. I have to learn how to communicate, but keep open to them. We’re confronting the same things.”