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Art professor’s work reflects his Asian American experience

Kevin Kao, an assistant professor of art, talks with a visitor in a Roe Art Building studio during the Furman Showcase on April 15, 2023.

Last updated May 12, 2023

By Furman News

AAPI Heritage Month at Furman
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At a Furman Forward event that brought accepted students to campus in late March, one father approached Kevin Kao, an assistant professor of art, and immediately asked, “Is this a safe place?” – in Mandarin Chinese.

“This is a very Chinese thing to do,” laughed Kao from his office in the Roe Art Building near the start of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. “Find the closest Asian person and just straight-up ask them, right?”

Kao, who was born and raised in southern California as a child of Taiwanese immigrants, understood the father’s language – and more.

“I saw so much of my own parents,” he said. “As an immigrant, you do fear so many things, and you want to protect your children. You want them to go somewhere where they can be around others like them. And you’re not even sure what a small liberal arts and sciences university is all about.”

Kao candidly told the concerned parent that “though the University is predominantly white, I have found it to be so welcoming,” he said. “Furman tries its best to be inclusive of a lot of different viewpoints.” 

Connecting and unpacking

Although the community of students, faculty and staff who share Asian or Pacific Island heritage is small, “we try to connect with each other,” said Kao.

“I’ve had some of the best conversations about what it means to be Asian American with my students,” he said. “It can be really difficult sometimes. If you come from an immigrant background, you often have this expectation that you have to do very, very well, and I relate to that so much. We’re trying to unpack this together.”

Many of the Asian and Asian American students Kao encounters are studying the sciences, he said – something else he can relate to, having earned a B.S. in biology from the University of California San Diego, where he studied ecology, evolution and animal behavior. He brings some of that scientific interest to his clay sculptures, which he has shown in exhibits across the country. This month, Kao will join Ashley Morris, a professor of biology, in teaching a May Experience course, “Nature in Art: Botanical Form and Function in Clay.”

“We’re looking at natural forms of plant life and how it affects the containers they’re in,” he said, “but also how the containers can affect the plants, too.”

Identity and duality

Kao’s sculptures feature human figures illuminating themes of identity, perception and duality; one ceramic piece depicts one head with two faces facing opposite directions. Another motif is assimilation, an experience Kao said he shared with many other Asian Americans.

“When you’re growing up the child of immigrants, it’s important to assimilate, because they view it as the one path for success,” he said. “I remember very distinctly my parents saying, ‘When you’re at school, try to be as American as possible.’ But at home, we were very much Chinese.”

Although the liberal arts and sciences model might have been unfamiliar to the father Kao met at Furman Forward, the professor sees definite advantages for his students.

“I try to tell them about the fortitude that they’ve learned here, their ability to be adaptable, their holistic well-being here,” he said. “The Furman student is so much more prepared to talk with other people, to acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses, to really reflect and to build on that to make this world a better place.”

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