Stan Herd’s latest art project might not be big enough to be seen from space, but it does have one advantage over the Great Wall of China.
“I tease and say if they have major earthquakes in China, the Great Wall is in trouble but our project is not,” Herd says of his colossal “earthwork.” “It’s so deep and embedded in the ground, and so massively created on that hillside, it will be here hundreds of years from now.”
Created on a hillside in the Yunnan Province of Southwest China, Herd’s “Young Woman of China” stretches 500 feet long by 400 feet wide. It’s roughly the scale of four football fields and quadruple the size of his renowned Amelia Earhart portrait that covers the hills of Atchison.
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The China project represents the most ambitious addition to the cultural environment series of young indigenous women that the Kansas native launched in the early ’90s, with his rendering of a Kickapoo woman near Salina.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, it was about a 9," Herd says of the China artwork. "And I can live with 7. If it gets below that, I’m worried. Eight is good. Nine is great. Ten is impossible. As a beautiful design, it surpassed my expectations."
“Young Woman of China” utilizes marble, granite and the province’s natural stone. It also incorporates dirt, plants, rice paddies and other materials native to the region.
As part of the design, Herd includes images of the Yunnan box turtle, which was once thought to be extinct but has recently resurfaced. The necklace is the Hur symbol for harmony, while the earring is the Tao symbol for long life. It resides in the center of the 800-acre Taiping Lake Park.
“There were so many challenges that it’s almost hard to list: distance, language, dealing with a large company whose leader was a bit of a wildcard,” Herd says.
An epic project
It started three summers ago when a representative for China’s HongyunHonghe Tobacco Group (the world’s fourth largest by sales) was conducting business in Minneapolis, Minn. He happened to be there when Herd unveiled “Olive Trees,” an earthwork interpretation of a Van Gogh painting commissioned by the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
“(The rep) took this back to his company and said, ‘You should get this guy to come do a portrait here because he does these amazing things,’” Herd recalls during a recent interview at his Lawrence workspace.
Thus began an epic undertaking that found Herd traveling to China 15 times in 15 months.
Things began rather inauspiciously. The retired tobacco czar who financed the endeavor, Jiankang Qiu, decided the topsoil devoted to the earthwork should instead be used to fill up a lake.
So Herd arrived for a third visit to witness his canvas had been stripped. This cost six weeks of work. That was followed by another two weeks forfeited to the rainy season.
He began with a basic chalk outline. Then he framed it using thousands of bricks, which he reconfigured on five separate occasions.
“They kept wanting to lay things out with GPS. I kept saying, ‘I have to do this by eyesight. That’s my art,’” the 67-year-old says.
“He wanted to feel the land and nature, to inspire himself from (this) work,” says Ang Li, an architect and interpreter with Yunnan JiCheng Landscape Design who helped coordinate the endeavor. “He insisted on creating design outline in old way (and doing) every single line by himself."
A typical day consisted of Herd and Li driving to the field to confer with JiCheng engineers. Although the park boasted 100 full-time workers, Herd says he usually had access to between seven to 20 of them. With most visits, he brought along friends or family to China, which often included his adult son, Evan Herd.
“When I first saw it, it was in a pretty raw stage,” says friend Stanley Sheldon, who accompanied Herd on one of the midpoint trips to help with the construction. “It was right during the rainy season. They were having to bring earth movers in every day just to level it out again from the soil erosion that happened from this rain event. It looked like a huge red canvas when I got there.”
Sheldon, who speaks Portuguese, had previously joined Herd when pitching a “Young Woman” earthwork in Brazil. So he was thrilled about the opportunity to go to China.
The Lawrence-based Sheldon, a veteran musician best known as the longtime bass player with Peter Frampton, says he helped with “moving stones and things.” But mainly he served as a confidant for one of the many trips where Herd didn’t have a lot of English-speaking assistants.
“When I’m not with Stan and try to explain to someone what he does, you can’t really do it,” Sheldon says. “You have to show somebody the image, then show them the scale of it. ‘This little dot? That’s Stan on a tractor.’”
“Young Woman of China” was supposed to be completed last December, but it took several months longer. Herd last spent 48 days in China — from February through March — to put on the finishing touches.
He saved the face for last. The eyes proved the most problematic.
“I’d look at it from a drone and say, ‘She’s still cross-eyed.’ Then I’d move the whole (pupil) over by a foot,” he says.
What made him especially proud was the physical “look” of his subject.
“She ended up beautiful,” he says. “And she’s mysterious.”
Yong Zhang, managing director of JiCheng, praises the piece for its “strong artistic expression and great cultural significance.”
He adds: “It beautifully represents elegance of (women) of China. … And this artwork also (embodies) communication in culture and art areas between China and America.”
He loves the Crossroads
Herd has been no stranger to international exposure. In addition to decades of coverage for being the world’s premier crop artist known for the medium of “living sculpture,” Herd has also displayed his work on the big screen.
In 2009, the feature film “Earthwork” chronicled his 1993 attempt to create a public art piece in New York City on land owned by Donald Trump. Oscar-nominated actor John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”) portrayed Herd. However, he believes his own local community doesn’t always “get” what he does.
“Even when I go to Kansas City, I’m not really known in the ‘art world.’ I’ve gotten a lot of coverage in The Star, but it’s never been in the arts section. But the Chinese get my work,” he says. “Although I’m just a farm boy from Protection, Kansas, I was stunned at the level of respect they paid to me and the art.”
He says the respect was particularly surprising, given how this type of art possesses far deeper roots in China than in the U.S.
“This is a thousands-of-year-old culture where people have worked with the land,” he says. "Young Woman of China" "is about the people, the environment and those who work in the land. It’s all these things the Chinese hold in great regard.”
Despite a perceived snub from the local art crowd, Herd just opened a gallery and workspace in KC. With the money he made from the China piece — the most he's ever been paid — Herd invested in a 3,000-square-foot loft at 1800 Central.
“It’s my ‘Stan Herd Speakeasy’ right next to the Kauffman Center,” he says of the as-yet-unnamed spot. Dressed in his customary black T-shirt and jeans, and sporting longish gray hair and glasses, Herd raves how the KC Crossroads area has “evolved into a place as hip as anywhere in the country.”
For now, he’s dedicating his Lawrence workspace to sculpting. The new KC space will be used for his own painting, events and, hopefully, even as a live music venue.
Herd claims he’d be “amazed” if he didn’t return to China for another artistic adventure. He’s already got one planned that he is calling “World Horse,” a 19-stories-tall “inhabitable sculpture” to honor the history of horse culture.
"I'm getting to the point where I’m doing enough of these big projects where I don’t have to sell my art — which is exactly when people want to buy your art," he says.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”