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Widow of Chinese artist dusts off the paintings of the city he adopted

Preview: "Tu Baixiong: The Collection of Minyuan Yuan" is on exhibit through May 31 at the Dana Gallery, 123 W. Broadway, in Missoula.

Minyuan Yuan held on to her husband's paintings for as long as she could after he died. They lined the walls of her little two-bedroom home, a waterfall of rose, some downtown Missoula street scenes, jumbles of rooftops from his native China, one of his famous alley paintings vibrant in aqua and lilac.

But a fire in the apartment downstairs alarmed her enough to take the step she'd long contemplated and find a gallery to sell his works. They hang this month in the Dana Gallery, 27 paintings by the late Missoula artist Tu Baixiong, all for sale and most of them, by now, sold.

"I need the money," Yuan says in halting English when asked why she's selling these paintings now. "Also, Missoula people really like my husband's painting. I want everyone can enjoy my husband's paintings."

At once vivid and peaceful, textured with the brush strokes of calligraphy and the wrinkles he made by balling his paintings up mid-stream-of-consciousness, then uncrumpling them and painting some more, depicting the life of Missoula without including a single human figure - Baixiong's paintings do, indeed, capture local imaginations. It's rare, says gallery owner Dudley Dana, for 60 percent of the pieces in a single show to sell.

Some buyers come out of nostalgia, having known Tu in the University of Montana's master's of fine arts program, where he studied starting in the late 1980s after earning his undergraduate degree in his native China.

"The nicest thing about the show is we've heard so many great stories about your husband," Dana says to Yuan. She smiles and tells how, as a student, he delivered pizza one night, but only earned $5 in tips over his seven-hour shift because he couldn't find the addresses in time - and so had to give away pie after pie.

His supervisor was very understanding, and encouraged Tu to return to work - but the artist quit, saying he couldn't stand not using his time to paint. Later he would teach at the university, and paint, paint, paint - so busy that he couldn't even spare the time to take Yuan shopping, she says.

"He paint all the time. Sometimes at night I watch TV, and he just paint."

When he died in 1996 - at the age of 51, from complications of hepatitis B he'd contracted in his 20s in China - Yuan was so sad she couldn't bear to be alone, she says. She followed the couple's son, Daqi Tu, to Yale University (where he's on the cusp of earning his Ph.D., she says) and tried to live in Boston but, she says now with tears wetting her cheeks, the experience was too overwhelming for her - she couldn't speak English very well and had a hard time navigating the city.

Missoula is her home now: "I have lots of friends. It looks like my hometown." And there's something especially gratifying about giving back to the community that's supported her so much, she says - giving back by making Tu's paintings available.

Only 10 remain for sale (although Birnbaum's Broadway Frame has three Baixiong paintings for sale, as well), four of them, according to Dana, purchased for eventual donation to the Art Museum of Missoula. Seventeen paintings adds up to a nice sum for Yuan - but the money, she says, is already spent.

"I want to make a book of Tu," she says. "To make a book you need lots of money. This he like. He just want to make a book."

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