Artist and teacher Linus Chao dies at 89

  • Linus Chao at the unveiling ceremony of his deans paintings. (Photo by Vina Cristobal)

Linus Chao, one of Hawaii’s most prominent artists and art educators, died peacefully May 1, surrounded by his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He was 89.

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Born in 1930 in Jinan, Shandong, China, Chao taught art at Hawaii Community College for three-plus decades and produced educational and commercial animated films. He also taught art with his wife, Jane, at their Mountain View bed-and-breakfast.

“It’s a long contribution that they gave to this community,” Codie King, director of Wailoa Center in Hilo, said Thursday. “Fifty years of teaching — privately teaching, publicly teaching and exhibiting. They hosted artists from all over the world with their B&B. (The artists) would come and work in their studio.”

King described the news of Chao’s passing as “devastating.”

Chao left mainland China for Taiwan because of the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s. He earned an art degree from Taiwan National Normal University and was trained in cartoon animation at Toei Animation in Japan. He later studied and worked at Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera studios in Los Angeles.

Upon his return to Taiwan, he produced educational and commercial cartoon animation films and became known as the “Father of Animation” in Taiwan and China.

Linus and Jane Chao moved their family from Taiwan to Hawaii Island in 1969. It didn’t take long for Linus Chao’s talent to be noticed. He painted a large bust of then-Hawaii governor John A. Burns in 1970.

Later, he received a master of science degree in visual arts education from New York’s Parsons School of Design. He was a professor of fine arts at Hawaii Community College from 1971-2003.

Known for his mix of traditional Chinese brush painting philosophy and Western watercolor techniques, Chao in 1997 received the prestigious County of Hawaii Living Legend Award for his dedicated contribution to promoting culture and the arts. In 2002-03, he was honored with the University of Hawaii Board of Regents Medal for Excellence in Teaching Award.

Chao was active until recently. Last year, he and Jane had a show at Wailoa Center.

“It was a very popular show,” King said. “They called it ‘Jane and Linus Chao and Friends,’ and before that, it was ‘The Splendor of Art.’ And that’s what it was, splendor.

“They always included their students, and those students had been painting with them for 30 years or more. It’s not the student that normally comes to mind. That’s why she called them ‘friends,’ I guess. But it was a very beautiful show, very colorful — simple in the way we hung and displayed them. It was paintings on silk and watercolors.”

The Chaos and their artist friends have had their works displayed in many shows at Honolulu Hale, Ala Moana Shopping Center, Niigata and Sado Island, Japan, Taipei, Taiwan — and every other year at Wailoa Center.

Even Big Islanders not well versed in art became acquainted with Chao via a series of Chinese zodiac calendars commissioned by the former Sure Save Supermarkets.

King described Linus Chao’s art as “very traditional in the Asian sense, but not limited, very calligraphic.”

In 2017, Chao was chosen to create a series of paintings of the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine deans and unveiled his first painting, of Dr. Windor Cutting, the medical school’s first dean.

Chao recently was honored at the March 2019 Dean’s Circle event, where he unveiled the last four paintings of the deans, including one of current Dean Jerris Hedges, who sat for the artist.

The paintings of all five medical school deans, rendered in oil with koa frames, are displayed on the walls of the second floor of the Medical Education Building at UH-Manoa.

“Anybody who knows the last 50 years of art in the islands, his name will come up. … He’s crossed beams in the educational and aesthetic world. He’s up there in the forefront,” King said.

Private services have been held.

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Chao is survived by his wife, Jane Chao of Mountain View; daughters, Grace Chao of Mountain View, Ann (Marc Bulterys) Chao of San Diego and Mary (Ole Bent Rye) Chao Rye of Palo Alto, Calif.; son, Peter Chao of Santa Monica, Calif.; seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren; nieces and nephews.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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