Summer Research at the Cantor Art Gallery

In the summer of 2021, I was invited to be Weiss Summer Research Fellow at the Cantor Art Gallery. The Weiss Program allows Holy Cross students to stay on campus for 8 weeks, working on research projects with College faculty. My project was researching collections at the Cantor Art Gallery with the Gallery’s Director, Meredith Fluke. On my first day at the Gallery, Dr. Fluke took me through gallery storage, where she showed me a group of Asian decorative objects, that had not been previously researched by the Gallery staff – many of which had been unearthed during a complete collections inventory that was completed during Covid (we later discovered their provenance; given to the College by alumnus Frank Gallagher III, who served under General MacArthur after World War II). I was overjoyed to peek into them. Their materials are opulent, their styles lavish, their colors sensational, and their messages nostalgic.

Among them, there was an exquisite porcelain sculpture of Avalokiteśvara (Guānyīn 觀音) in the form of Padmapāṇi (Fig. 1), on which I had an instant crush. To people in East Asia, Guanyin is ohne Zweifel the embodiment of purity 净 and compassion 悯, just as Mary is to Christians. If you peek into any sculpture of Guanyin, her body is always perfectly proportioned, her expression tender, and her manner kingly. Historically, Guanyin has been blessed with at least thirty-three iconographies in Chinese Buddhist scriptures and art, one of which was Padmapāṇi, namely the Lotus Bearer 持蓮觀音. As early as the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (618-907), Chinese Guanyin statues had taken a female manifestation. By contrast, their Himalayan prototypes took a male manifestation while also featuring a softness of the anatomy, as evident in a turquoise-inlaid, bronze Padmapāṇi statue (Fig. 2) in the MET collection.

Porcelain Statue of Bodhisattva Guanyin Holding a Lotus Bloom c. 20th century. China.

The Cantor Guanyin stands right on the top of a huge, flat lotus leaf, holding a spray of an aromatic lotus bloom. To me, the message that the Guanyin conveys is not physiological but rhythmic and emotional, resembling Botticelli’s Venus with leggiadria. Although her loose garment opens at her partially exposed chest, it didn’t seem to me to be lascivious at all. And, how could we not fall in love with the color of the statue? Its infinite pure whiteness was probably modeled after the Blanc de Chine 德化白瓷, a type of ivory glazed porcelains that were crafted in present-day Fujian Province during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

The absence of a signature hindered us from deciphering who crafted the Cantor Guanyin and when it was crafted. Dr. Fluke explained that there are many times when we research historical objects that definitive knowledge about production is lost and irretrievable. When I studied a Japanese doll in the form of a man (Fig. 3), a new “question mark” popped up. To me, it was hard to tell its exact identity. The only clue was his extravagant crimson chōfuku 朝服, which parallels with the one worn by Fujiwara no Takamitsu 藤原高光 (939-994) in Kanō Yasunobo’s 狩野安信 (1614-1685) Sanjūrokkasen-gaku 三十六人歌仙伝 (Fig. 4). Since Fujiwara as a mid-Heian samurai armed with bows and arrows wears splendid crimson fabric in Kanō’s painting, the Cantor doll’s chōfuku, when coupled with the long wayumi 和弓 in his hand, indicates that he might be a samurai either in the Asuka period (592-710) or in the Heian period (794-1185).

Jinze Mi and Tim Johnson installing Ōmori Mitsumoto 大森光元.

I was not discouraged when I reach these dead ends in my research. I would rather wade into the murmuring brook—despite being fraught with vagaries—out of sheer curiosity and exhilaration. I used my research as the foundation for an exhibit I curated for the Spring of 2021. For the first time, the gifts of Frank Gallegher ’32 were on display. I selected 10 of the 33 objects that were a part of his original gift, including the Guanyin and the Kimona Doll. At a time that the virus kept me far from my family for a long time, the Cantor experience familiarized me with collection research methodologies and professional curatorial practices, which inspired me to reconsider how the early modern world was intermingled, both artistically and commercially.

Jinze Mi standing beside “Porcelain Statue of Bodhisattva Guanyin Holding a Lotus Bloom” in his exhibit “Asia in the Mirror.”

– Jinze Mi ’23

In Celebration of the Cantor and Visual Arts at Holy Cross


Father Brooks with B. Gerald Cantor at the opening of the Cantor Art Gallery in 1983.

The Cantor Art Gallery has played a vital part in Holy Cross’ liberal arts education since 1983 when Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. first envisioned its role as strengthening and fostering, “…the openness and tolerance necessary if we are to understand who we are and how we relate to one another.” During his tenure as president of Holy Cross from 1970 to 1994, Brooks made many significant contributions, including transforming the all-male, white student body into one that included students of color and women. 

Installation view of The Art of Elizabeth Catlett from the Collection of Samella Lewis.

Although transformative as these changes were for Holy Cross, Brooks laid a foundation as important as any other for the future of the College when he committed himself to establishing a gallery on campus. He knew, instinctively, that the visual arts matter when educating individuals and preparing them to be engaged citizens.

Installation view of What It Means by Sara Vo, ’19 from the Senior Concentration Seminar Exhibition 2019: Ennead, 2019.
Detail view of What It Means.

The Jesuit tradition in education places an emphasis on helping students to understand themselves as human beings, what their place is in the world, and how they can understand and serve others. Having a space that is dedicated to the visual arts, makes room for experiencing a wide range of expressions of what it means to be human – on emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and cultural levels. By engaging in a dialogue with a work of art, there is an opportunity for us to see and appreciate points of view we’ve never encountered or considered before.

Visiting Fulbright Professor Naresh Bajracharya from Nepal created a stone powder Adhivāśana Mandala in the gallery during the Dharma and Punya exhibition.
Installation view of Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal, 2019, co-curated by Dr. Jinah Kim, Professor of History of Art & Architecture, Harvard University and Dr. Todd Lewis, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross.

Experiencing a work of art is like unraveling a puzzle – what is the artist trying to express, by what means is it accomplished, is it familiar or foreign to me, is it showing me something I don’t understand, or don’t relate to, how does it make me feel? I can’t think of a better way of becoming a more open-minded person than by opening oneself up to the experiences of others – whether throughout history, those present in your immediate community, or across the globe today. 

Installation view of Create, 2012, an exhibition which presented the work of twenty artists with developmental disabilities who have been active at one of three pioneering studios in California.

From its very beginnings until now, the Cantor has exhibited works of art across a wide range of issues, experiences, genres, and cultures – from civil rights in the United States to apartheid in South Africa; the devastation of war as witnessed at Hiroshima and through the Holocaust; objects of religious devotion from Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic faith traditions, as well as Native American sacred sites; bold African sculptures, intricate textiles from Indonesia, lyrically fluid Islamic calligraphy; art created in response to major events such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and art created by differently-abled artists that express their unique visions of the world; works by Vietnamese women artists, Latin American artists, and Cuban artists; yearly exhibitions of student works from visual arts majors, as well as visual art faculty exhibitions on a triennial basis.

Installation view of Hurricane Suite in Nine Movements by Dawn DeDeaux, from the exhibition Katrina Then & Now: Artists as Witness, Part II: The Rebirth of Art, 2015, curated by Daina Cheyenne Harvey, Assistant Professor of Sociology, College of the Holy Cross (the first installation was entitled Part I: Documenting, Describing & Dealing with Disaster).
Installation view of the faculty exhibition Summa, 2018.

When I reflect on why the Cantor is such a special part of a Holy Cross education, and vital resource for the campus, it comes down to a belief in the power of creative expression – in this case visual expression – as offering us a way to connect with others and become more than ourselves alone. Father Brooks’ words resonate with me as deeply important today, as much as they did when he spoke them back in 1983. Openness, tolerance, and understanding of our fellow humans – these values matter now more than ever. As the Cantor begins a new chapter with its move into the Prior Performing Arts Center, it is poised to further engage the Holy Cross community – and wider community – with essential questions of humanity through the visual arts.

Paula Rosenblum, Assistant Director for Communications and Operations

Installation view of the Cantor Art Gallery’s inaugural exhibit at the Prior Performing Arts Center, Afterimage: 2022 Visual Arts Faculty.