Ghosts of Taiwan: C. Hite Grapples With Her Past

In the installation piece "The Gift," artist C. Hite and her son displayed lengths of brocade fabric on a bamboo pole.
In the installation piece "The Gift," featured in the exhibition "From My Father's Eye to Mine: Sculpture and Documentary by C. Hite," the artist and her son, C. Hite-Trejo, carry brocade fabrics displayed on a bamboo pole -- a traditional Taiwanese wedding gift.

C. Hite is haunted. The Los Osos artist, who spend part of her childhood in Taiwan, has spent decades trying to decipher her memories of the war-torn island nation, struggling to reconcile her feelings with the facts.

"To get to this point where I could do this installation and open the dialogue about Taiwan, I felt was my responsibility," Hite, 63, said. "And I've waited a lifetime to do it."

Her exhibition "From My Father's Eye to Mine: Sculpture and Documentary by C. Hite," running through February at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, serves as a career retrospective, showcasing themes and concepts that the artist has been exploring since the early 1970s. The show, which encompasses ceramics, sculpture, photography, performance art and other disciplines, is being presented in conjunction with the Central Coast Sculptors Group.

"We just like to feature the range of what our members do and (Hite) was a good example of that. She has quite a body of work and quite a history," explained Michael Reddell, former president of the Central Coast Sculptors Group, noting how the artist's past pervades every element of the exhibition. "Most people just hang up art, and that's it. She took it to a deeper level."

Los Osos artist C. Hite looks back at a career in sculpture, performance art and other disciplines in the exhibition "From My Father's Eye to Mine." | Gianna Cavallaro
Los Osos artist C. Hite looks back at a career in sculpture, performance art and other disciplines in the exhibition "From My Father's Eye to Mine." | Photo: Gianna Cavallaro.

Tales of her late father's wartime experiences -- vine-covered temples, snake charmers, whirling dervishes and the like -- fueled Hite's childhood imagination. A U.S. Air Force mechanic and pilot who began his military career in a National Guard cavalry division, he hiked across India to reach Nepal during World War II and participated in the Berlin Airlift in the early days of the Cold War.

"I was really close to my father and I think that's why he talked to me," Hite said, noting that their bond was cemented with her birth. Her mother went into labor during the funeral of Hite's paternal grandfather, and the artist was born after midnight on her father's birthday in December 1950. (Born Carol Beth Hite, the artist later legally changed her first name to "C.")

When Hite was 6, she, her mother and her two older siblings joined her father overseas for the first time. He was stationed as an American military advisor in the Republic of China, as Taiwan is officially known, during a time of immense tension between the island nation and the People's Republic of China.

After the end of World War II, the island nation -- still reeling from a half-century of Japanese rule -- found itself in the cross-hairs of a civil war between the Chinese Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, as Cold War tensions raged around the globe.

"Fans" by C. Hite
"Fans" by C. Hite.

In 1947, the shooting of a civilian triggered an island-wide uprising that was violently suppressed by the Chinese Nationalist Party-led government, resulting in the slaughter of as many as 30,000 people. The so-called 228 Incident ushered in the period referred to as the White Terror.

Between 1949, when martial law was declared on Taiwan, and 1987, when democratic rule was restored, 140,000 Taiwanese political dissidents were imprisoned and in some cases tortured; 3,000 to 4,000 were executed.

"My experience in Taiwan is that we were isolated," Hite recalled, living in a fortress-like complex in the country flanked by rice paddies, away from other American military families. "I understood that there was something about where we lived that made people afraid, that we caused people stress by being there." But she couldn't quite grasp why at the time.

There were glimmers of Taiwan's trauma, of course: the mutilated orphans she encountered at a missionary hospital, the "friendly spies" who accosted her and her siblings in the village. She now believes that an undulating grassy knoll next to the Hite home's garbage pit was actually a mass murder site and that the hashmarks that she saw in a workshop weren't decorations, but sword slashes.

​"Rag Kabuki Live!" by C. Hite.

Hite lived in Taiwan for two years before her family returned to the States, spending the rest of her adolescence in Southern California. In 1973, she moved to Humboldt to study ceramics and experimental filmmaking, spending time in Chico and Sacramento before moving with her son, C. Hite-Trejo, to the Central Coast in 1997.

"I was 50-something when my hidden memories started coming back," Hite recalled. "I (gradually) pieced it together: Why did these grown men come and stand out front? Why did no one ever go to the back of the house? And why was there fear in everyone's eyes?"

Hite pieced together her recollections of Taiwan with the help of her father's photographed slides -- the inspiration behind her show's title, "From My Father's Eye to Mine."

The exhibition spans the gamut from Asian-influenced animation to wearable art, each piece representing a different aspect of Hite's creative journey. Photographs show glimpses of past art installations -- such as 1981's "Rag Kabuki Live!," a colorful commentary on poverty, and 1981's "13 Conceptual Days," which found Hite on a solo exploration of Death Valley. "Every day I was relaxed. I took my time. I would just travel around and see where my next site was," she said.

"Mirage: 13 Conceptual Days" by C. Hite
"Mirage: 13 Conceptual Days" by C. Hite.

The founder of ART Zero, a collaboration of artists and individuals from the art and business communities, Hite ascribes to what she calls the "zero mind" approach, which emphasizes unstudied creativity. "You need to take the step of thinking out of it," she explained. "When I started doing things really spontaneously ... I really started liking my work."

Hite's ceramic pieces, especially her rough raku creations, reflect that approach.

Take 1975's "Madonna" and 2012's "Hostage," both entries of the same sculptural series. Inside the feminine, womb-like forms can be seen ball shapes bursting with vitality. "I wanted to depict something that really showed incredible energy, and that's what came to me," Hite explained.

Other pieces appear more purposeful.

"Conical Forms" features five straw hats -- the conical type commonly worn by field workers in Asia -- decorated with paint, feathers, faux flowers, tassels and beads. Hite said the piece was inspired by the farmhands she saw in Taiwan and her own experiences working during the Easter lily harvest in Del Norte County, which disproved her mother's belief that a good education would ward off poverty.

"This is my way of saying, 'I got down on my hands and knees and crawled through a field with two degrees in art,'" said Hite, who holds three degrees in ceramic sculpture studio arts, graduating from Riverside City College in 1973 with an associate degree, Humboldt State University in 1975 with a bachelor's degree and Sacramento State University in 1984 with a master's degree. (She also has a doctorate of divinity; friends call the artist "Rev" -- short for "Reverend.")

"Conical Forms" by C. Hite
"Conical Forms" by C. Hite.

At the center of "From My Father's Eye to Mine" is the 2008 sculpture installation "Formosa." (The piece takes its name from Ilha Formosa ("Beautiful Island"), the Portuguese name for Taiwan.)

Situated next to 2015's "Shrine," a stand of withered bamboo stalks resembling a rice paddy, the large raku pot recalls a female field worker carrying scorched bamboo and ceramic canes.

Above the entrance of the vessel hover a clay mask, a reference to the handkerchiefs worn by raku potters and farmhands, and a singed straw hat; the entire assemblage is perched on a wooden platform over sand studded with Y-shaped ceramic forms-- "landscape graffiti," Hite said.

"There's always kind of a mystery about (Hite's) work, so you have to get close to it and look at it and think about it," Santa Margarita artist Melinda Forbes said. "That makes it even more intriguing."

"Formosa" by C. Hite
"Formosa" by C. Hite.

Forbes and her frequent collaborator, San Luis Obispo artist Julie Frankel, have worked with Hite several times over the years on The Peace Library, a community-based, collaborative art project centered on subjects of war and peace.

Describing Hite as a "complete nonconformist" whose work is designed to challenge and engage, Frankel said many of the artist's pieces draw on personal experience, often referencing unspecified atrocities or violence.

"Whatever the seminal experiences that she had in her life (were), that seems to be a very deep well that she goes back to again and again," Frankel said. "(Her work) evokes sensations, responses. It alludes to (events) but without being really knowable. That's part of what makes it art as opposed to a history lesson."

Hite acknowledged that she's still trying to find peace with her past.

"My life, my art and my mission have taken courage. People don't have to understand it," she wrote in an email. "It was my place to figure it all out. I think this is what my show as all about: fitting one more piece to the puzzle."

Hostage by C. Hite, detail.jpg
Detail of "Hostage" by C. Hite.


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