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Arts & Life

The Year of the Dragon

This week marked the start of the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese lunar calendar. The dragon is a symbol of strength, good luck, and the supernatural.

For a series called Artists in their Own Words, magician Dan Chan and his wife, balloon artist Kat Chan, discussed magic, Bian Lian or "Face Changing" (a performance with masks), and dragons.

On Thursday, in a classroom at the Ford Learning Center at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kat Chan stood next to a balloon inflater. With three hours of work into the creation of what will be a six-foot tall balloon dragon, the dragon's head - in shades of green, yellow, and white - rested on a nearby table.

"My balloon bag is really my palette," said Kat Chan as she dipped into her bag to display a variety of colors and sizes of balloons. "Whatever you do in balloons, it's going to look a little cartoonish. When I was younger, I drew a lot of comics so it came in handy because then I could add in those little features."

Chan, and her husband, Dan Chan, are based in San Francisco, Ca. She said she learned the art of shaping balloons into animals and objects from husband, a magician. She joked that she pushed him into retirement now that she's "one of the fastest balloon twisters in the Bay Area...I just naturally like moving quickly."

Dan Chan's start as a balloon artist led to an interest in magic. Chan called himself a magic purist: "I would only use ordinary cards, coins, rubber bands, things that people would see around himself."

This sleight of hand served Chan well when he trained with a master in the art of Bian Lian, or "Face Changing." Performers, in brightly colored costumes, wear masks that change in the blink of an eye. "Each time it changes, it's one different character."

Bian Lian is an artform often passed from generation to generation. Chan learned from a master who had no children. "I was fortunate to find someone who would want to keep that tradition alive."

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art presents its annual Chinese New Year celebration on Friday, January 27, 2012, 5 - 9 pm. Highlights include Kat Chan's 6-foot dragon balloon sculpture in the Bloch building, Dan Chan's Bian Lian performances in Atkins Auditorium (note: sold out; check with the museum), dance performances in Kirkwood Hall, traditional music, Chinese  painting and calligraphy, Chinese food, and more.

The “Artists in Their Own Words” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

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