The award honors master craftspeople who cherish the state’s cultural heritage through traditional arts or crafts.
Longhua Xu has called Hot Springs home for more than 30 years. During that time, the sculptor and painter has contributed to the city’s cultural arts scene through his artwork and advocacy. The Arkansas Arts Council recognized Xu for his wood carving skills by naming him an Arkansas Living Treasure in 2019.
“It’s an honor to have because they recognize you’re a great artist,” Xu says.
Launched in 2002, the Arkansas Living Treasure program celebrates Arkansans who are masters of a folk or traditional craft. After pausing the initiative in 2021, the Arkansas Arts Council is searching for nominees for 2022. Previous awardees have demonstrated a variety of skills including weaving, fiddle making, log cabin construction and egg art.
“We’ve had a lot of different types of people — woodworking has been one — but we’re hoping to incorporate more people and try to get into communities that maybe have not been acknowledged to the full extent that they should have been,” says artist services manager Scarlet Sims.
Sims is excited to bring the program back and potentially expand it. She’s hopeful the council can have a celebration that not only honors the awardee’s work, but also showcases their craft so that it might spark interest in participating in traditional folk arts and the arts in general.
“Arts across the board have so many benefits and I would really like it if more Arkansans could see that and acknowledge it and then participate,” she says. “From mental health wellness to education in our schools, arts are fundamentally important and this to me is another way that we can boost up the crafts world and the traditional folk arts.”
Because of the pandemic, Xu was the last awardee to be honored with an in-person celebration. Little Rock artist and 2020 recipient Michael Warrick was honored for his metalworking during a virtual ceremony.
In addition to having a body of work demonstrating their master skills, Arkansas Living Treasure recipients also strive to keep their craft alive by sharing their knowledge with others, Sims says.
“Longhua Xu, for example, he’s helped the community in Hot Springs and really perpetuated the craft through being in the community and trying to teach and showcase his own pieces, and trying to help people who are younger than he achieve that level of mastery,” she says.
Xu grew up in China and studied art as part of an elite group of students who attended a facility dedicated to creating a new generation of professional artists following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Xu graduated from East China University of Technology with a degree in Fine Arts and taught art at Shanghai University of Technology until 1989.
That same year he emigrated to the United States and eventually settled in Hot Springs in 1990. He taught at Henderson State University and a local community college before retiring from higher education instruction in 2001.
“Art is a gift, but art also is a skill,” Xu says.
In 1992, Xu was commissioned to create Mother Nature, a marble sculpture located outside the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs. He has since created several pieces of public art for parks, schools and hospitals, as well as for private collectors.
Throughout his career, Xu has also advocated for arts education and Arkansas artists, according to the Arkansas Arts Council. He and his late wife published a book in 1990 to bring awareness to 13 Hot Springs artists’ work. In the 2018 exhibition The Soul of Arkansas, Xu displayed 40 paintings to spotlight the ethnic and cultural diversity of Arkansans through his own perspective.
Xu is now sharing his love of art with his grandson, Han. During the pandemic, Xu began watching Han while his parents were at work. They started creating art together and it resulted in the Crayons to Canvas exhibition that was on display earlier this year at the Mid-America Science Museum. Xu has learned a lot from his grandson and says he “had a great time with him.”
If Han’s interest in art continues, perhaps one day he’ll become an Arkansas Living Treasure just like his grandfather. For now, the Arkansas Arts Council is looking for current masters of their craft who could be the 2022 honoree. The deadline for nominations is Dec. 20. More information is available on the Arkansas Arts Council’s website.