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Monday, June 16, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Peas, Poetry And Art -- Alan Lau Is A Greengrocer Nomad Who Follows His Heart And Leads Many In The Asian-American Cultural Scene

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Alan Chong Lau works the long rows of baby bok choy and gleaming peppers in Uwajimaya's produce aisle. He trims yellowed stalks, cuts shriveled stems, straightens eggplants gone askew.

Occasionally he pulls a small notebook from his shirt pocket. He sketches the strong line of a leaf, jots down a scrap of poem:

wintermelon

inside each one

hides a snowflake

woven by a spider

Lau looks like a greengrocer. A green apron covers his round tummy. He wears a paring knife in a leather pouch. His frayed shirt cuffs flap as he twists red wire ties around bunches of cabbage. A price sticker is stuck to his sleeve.

Lau is a grocer. Yet he is also an artist whose paintings hang in a tony Seattle gallery, a poet with two published volumes, the editor of the nation's most comprehensive Asian-Pacific-American book review. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies and national and international shows, and he recently won a prestigious grant for artistic contributions to the community from Artist Trust, a state arts group.

In the pocket of his baggy khakis, Lau carries a worn black address book. It is stained and Scotch-taped, damp from body heat, jammed with names and addresses that have been scribbled and crossed out and rescribbled. It is the Who's Who of Asian-American artists in the Northwest. Dodging steel shopping carts and asparagus displays, dancers and directors dash into the store to seek Lau's advice, to firm details of a memorial concert, to pick up a bunch of scallions.

Lau seems to know everything, everybody: "Did you ever consider the Chinese-American Ying String Quartet for your program? . . . How about inviting Yo Yo Ma to talk to Seattle's little virtuosos? He gave a workshop for children at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco. . . . Hmmm, if you want to make money on that manuscript, you'll need an agent to try the big New York publishing houses. If a small press is all right, try Coffee House in Minnesota. . . . Yep, that's a turnip. . . . Simmer the chrysanthemum leaves in a soup 'til fragrant. . . . Eighty cents a pound. . . ."

If you ask Lau what he does, he modestly identifies himself as a produce worker. Those in the know call him the Northwest's premiere advocate and critic of Asian-American art, literature, music and dance. Lau is also a film buff, jazz fanatic and connoisseur of fresh tofu.

"He is a nomad," says Ron Chew, director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. "He follows his heart's desire, which many of us dream about doing, but never get around to doing because we want to have greater material things."

Lau is a nomad who gets around by Metro bus.

Out on the edges

An afternoon run of the No. 16 bus wends its way from downtown Seattle to Wallingford. It drops Lau near the former Food Giant, several blocks walk from the book-crammed studio apartment he shares with his wife, Kazuko Nakane.

The door chimes jangle as Lau shuffles into Open Books, a poetry emporium on 45th Street Northeast. Lau peruses the stacks. If he has money, he buys slim volumes and slides them into the canvas backpack he hand-painted and his wife hand-stitched. If not, he puts the books on hold and gossips with bookstore co-owner John W. Marshall. Literary gossip. The publisher who never sent a review copy . . . the graduate student with a book of poems on the way . . . the fabulous writing teacher at the University of Iowa.

"He has a strong sense of people who are out on the edges of creativity," Marshall says. "He doesn't go for the safe and easy. He likes challenging work. He knows what it is to be an artist."

To Lau, being an artist has little to do with rakishly tilted berets or wine-and-cheese receptions or creative angst.

"I don't think the artist is an exalted creature that's removed from society," he says. "An artist is just another type of worker to me. . . . There's no reason we can't be creative in whatever we do."

Take produce, for example. Lau initially thought of the job as a way to pay bills after he was laid off as a janitor in a light-switch factory. "It's not that I seriously thought I wanted to be in produce," he says. "It just happened."

On his first day in the huge Asian grocery store, Lau stood among the snow peas and mangos, stunned. He oohed and aahed over the textures and forms, the rhythm of the rows.

Ten years later, Lau admits there are many days when cabbage is just cabbage. Still, on certain mornings, smells bombard, colors jab. Shuffling through his shift, Lau cannot escape the beauty and meaning of vegetables:

three grandmas

in baseball caps

that bear the logos

of moving companies and gas stations

stand in running shoes

crouched over our product

picking with care

as the overhead scale trembles

to the toss of shoppers

mouths chatter

as quick as fingers fly

over a pile of green beans

The poetry and art inspired by Lau's decade as a produce clerk will be published next year in his third book, "Blue and Greens: A Produce Worker's Journal" (University of Hawaii Press). It will include ruminations on raw fish, a bittersweet memory of his late father's taste for bitter melon, abstract paintings of pungent kimchi (folded layers of yellow and green splashed with flecks of red pepper), an ode to Chinese broccoli:

bunching the gai lan

cutting across

dark green leaves

in a zig zag of hunger

i see the worm

has left his signature

The psychedelic scene

Lau grew up in the 1950s in Paradise, a small town on the edge of California's Sierra foothills. His family settled in the all-white community because his father wanted to start a Chinese restaurant where there wouldn't be any competition.

". . . chinatown was upstairs in my gramma's kitchen where we'd struggle with characters we'd never seen before, splashing ink all over the page," Lau wrote in his first book, "Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99." ". . . each wisp of jasmine breath coming up off cups of tea melted into that room of light, made it seem warmer than it was. she'd guide our hands until they became extensions of her memory, until each character became her own."

This was Lau's earliest experience with the brush.

During college in the 1960s, his artistic style evolved into a psychedelic acrylic squeeze-out-of-the-tube Peter Max imitation, only not as neat. It was a heady time on California state campuses. At the College of San Mateo, Lau was a roadie for a rock band with an ever-changing cast of guitarists. The group opened for Janis Joplin, played in Haight Ashbury and the Matrix in San Francisco. Lau joined student demonstrations for ethnic studies and Third World liberation. He was an Asian-American kid from an all-white town, eager to uncover his cultural identity.

After two years, two different colleges and no degree, Lau considered traveling to China to find his roots. But China, pre-Nixon, was a difficult place for an American to get a visa. So Lau hopped a boat to Japan. He hitchhiked through the countryside, helped translate lyrics ("What does it mean, `Like a rolling stone?' "), eked out a living teaching a before-work English class to Japanese civil servants. In between all this, he fell in love with one of the students (who is now his wife), backpacked around the world and took classes in Japanese brush painting.

The classes were not the kind of scholarly art training where a disciple kneels at the elbow of a wise old master. "I was in there with all the other housewives," Lau says. "I picked up a lot of sloppy street Japanese."

He also acquired a love of the brush.

These days, in his white brick studio above Bud's Jazz Records in Pioneer Square, Lau squats in paint-spattered socks over newspapers spread on the floor. He grinds a stick of charcoal ink round and round on a smooth black stone, dips a wide brush into a plastic Danken's tub filled with water, sweeps the hairs across creamy paper, drips paint on thick stock, admires the gradations of gray, the sense of space and surprise.

His current work is mostly abstract, monochrome with splashes of color, not traditional brush painting, but inspired by the technique.

In one sketch from his Cloud Fragments series, a single brush stroke soars up to a peak, swirls down the back of a mountain, quivers out to sea. In "After the Funeral," a painting from his Japanese Train series, Lau uses three lines and a few dots to capture the texture of hair follicles, the dryness of lips, the rocking of the train, the weight of sorrow.

The infinitesimal details

Lau's larger paintings are inspired by nature. Because he never learned to drive, Lau spends lots of time walking to and fro, observing nature in Ravenna Park, Magnolia's Discovery Park, Woodland Park, Green Lake. He gets friends to drive him to the coast, to the mountains.

"Everything teems with activity, but we're always in such a hurry, we don't always notice on a regular day," Lau says. "I wanted to capture a sense of growth and movement. Everywhere you walk, if you look down, there is infinitesimal detail, layers and layers, the whole circle of birth and death, and, somewhere in between, the present."

In Lau's abstract works, nothing is exactly what it is. But the lines and circles and swirls suggest bird tracks, squiggly branches, grassy slashes, smooth stones, slanting rain, foamy waves, wet kelp, broken reeds, sand, snow, sky, clouds, earth, light, dark, space. You sense dirt underfoot, fields, rustling, wind, warmth. A second look conjures molecules, the Milky Way. The paintings make you want to look a long time.

"I like the painting to kind of reveal itself to the viewer not all instantly," Lau says. "Something that you can absorb slowly."

Lau's paintings sell for between $300 and $2,800 at Francine Seders Gallery, which also represents well-known contemporary artists Jacob Lawrence, Michael Spafford and Norman Lundin.

So far, Lau's work is not a huge commercial success, though it does OK. In the 17 years Seders has represented Lau, she has sold 61 of his paintings. This doesn't seem to bother either of them, since they view art for the long term, not as trend. If art is good, it will still be fresh 30 years from now, or 60 years from before.

"I may not be alive to see that," Lau says. "But that's just life. Or death. That's just the way it goes."

Seders likes Lau's work because it melds the feeling of traditional Asian art with the spontaneity of contemporary American art. "There are people who make beautiful art, but they don't have much to say," she says. "Alan puts a lot of himself into it. He not only makes good art, but he is an artist, too."

At 48, Lau considers himself lucky, albeit not wealthy. He has his brushes, his poetry, his music, his community. He has a Metro bus pass. He has stacks of baby bok choy, waiting to be trimmed.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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