Sam Hsu
Meets George Seurat

Art Institute of Chicago
September 2010

Mark Peters

I write here of my friend Sam not the earliest memories or about those intersections which lasted longest or with thoughts of his passing. But rather, like Sam, I begin with where I am right now—engaging the present, the real, the immediate. And engaging it with wonder.

I sit and write in the Impressionist wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, before George Seurat’s La grande jatte—1884. For it is here that I had the great privilege, together with Michael Kennedy, of being with Sam in September 2010 the first time he saw this painting in person. I knew it from him, of course (as I suppose did all his music history students), and loved being present at his first experience of the original. I remember his sense of awe, his sense of wonder, his sense of joy. He was full of joy, in fact, at experiencing La grande jatte—this was so different, so much more immediate, than the reproductions. It’s huge for one thing; so much more real, for another.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me. (Martin Buber, I and Thou)

(This was also my first experience of the exclusive, original La grande jatte, my first visit to the Art Institute.)

We spent a lot of time in this room, and I enjoyed observing Sam as much as, or even more than, seeing the original for the first time myself that day. I remember him stopping in wonder and exclaiming at first sight, wandering around the room to see it from different angles, leaning in close to admire the detail.

Alles wirkliche Leben ist Begegnung—All real living is encountering the Other. (More Martin Buber that I learned from Sam.)

I treasure this memory of encountering Sam encountering Seurat. And I’ve been back many times since, with Sam always now associated with this place and this painting for me. One thing I’ve liked to do in this past year—something I’m doing now as I pause from writing—is to observe people observing the painting. When my two oldest children started playing with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra in January 2011, one of the first things I did was to get a membership to the Art Institute. So I’ve been here quite a lot of times this year. And now I have many more reasons to keep coming back: to keep remembering and treasuring my friendship with Sam, to consider the ways in which I can continue to learn from and emulate him after his death, to keep encountering the Other through the gift of God’s grace.

La grande jatte by George Seurat Editor's Note

A recurrent art print I saw in Sam's apartment and studio was Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Banjo Lesson. A number of things about this painting must have appealed to Sam: the art itself, the student/teacher relationship, and that Tanner, a Philadelphia-born black minority artist used his talent to portray a biblically-inspired worldview to a wide audience. CC

"The Banjo Lesson" by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Sam's Chinese name means
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Sam and Mark at Trinity Christian College, where Sam came to perform his Chopin recital, March 2010.

And with his namesake, Samuel,
upon the same occasion.
Book Cover: “Claude Debussy As I Knew Him" and Other Writings of Arthur Hartmann
Mark Peters was privileged to be Sam’s student beginning in Fall 1997 at Philadelphia College of Bible. He served two years as Sam’s teaching assistant, and together with Sam and Sidney Grolnic published the monograph “Claude Debussy As I Knew Him" and Other Writings of Arthur Hartmann. (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2003). Since 2004, he has been a professor of music history at Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL.
Sam with Sidney Grolnic

Sam Hsu with Sidney Grolnic.