A mass of tangled, wet pages.
That answer comes quickly when Yuan Pan is asked whether a single piece of art has stuck with him more than all the rest. But when he first laid eyes on those ruined books at a museum in his native China, he said, he was more incredulous than inspired.
“I thought, ‘Why?’” Pan says, in his sunroom two decades and a half a world away. “Why is this art?”
The piece was a blend of Chinese and Western art — not in style or technique, but literally. The artist, Xu Bing, had put a Chinese art history textbook and a Western counterpart through an hour-long cycle in a washing machine, then dumped the resulting morass into the middle of a museum display — voila, art!
“But that stuck with me,” Pan, 45, reflects. “I didn’t understand it at the time, but over time, I’ve become more appreciative of the concept of art.”
Pan is an illustrator and graphic designer. He lives in Keene now, with his wife, Pirawan, and 4-year-old daughter Adeline Shing-Rae. This fall, he will enter his 18th year as a professor of art at Keene State College, and his first of a three-year stint as the department’s chairman.
The encounter with Xu’s display occurred in 1998. At the time, Pan was an assistant professor of design at Yunnan Polytechnic Institute; he’d earned his bachelor’s degree in painting a few years prior, at the Yunnan Art Institute, after doing well enough on the provincial art exam to be one of nine applicants, from a pool of 2,800, selected for admission. The teaching post came as a condition of his education.
Seeing the piece when he did was ironic, Pan says. During his schooling, he explains, he’d had to take two art history courses, on Chinese and Western art, and the interplay between the two traditions was a constant theme throughout his education.
“Seeing that literal blending process — it was shocking and inspiring.”
What he experienced — what Xu’s work allowed him to experience — helped crystalize Pan’s understanding of art, of what it is and what it should be.
“Good art has to make me see something differently, to think about something differently,” Pan says, “to reveal something that I wasn’t aware of.”
His explanation is practiced, smooth, refined over years of delivery, and his conception of art fundamentally inquisitive, constructed around a need to see things in a different light and through a personal lens. But, he says, that understanding has evolved significantly over his life and career, shaped by events as small as an encounter with a jumbled heap of wet paper, and as large as geopolitical tragedies.
The first that Pan points to — when he says he learned to question — is the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. He was around 16 at the time, and like the rest of the country, he says, he was enthralled by the student movement. Some 2,000 miles away, in his hometown of Baoshan, Pan and his family watched the state’s news coverage fawn over the students and their noble protest against repression.
But then overnight, the script flipped; the same protesters who had been media darlings the day before were suddenly criminals, their actions violent and seditious, and the military was called in.
“How can they do that? How can this be good yesterday and today is all bad?” Pan recalls thinking at the time. “… That was really a life-changing event for me, and it drastically established the way I see the world.”
Pan left China — permanently, as it would turn out — in 1999, but not for the Monadnock Region. An early admissions cycle, and a tempting scholarship, took him first to Auckland, New Zealand, for the first semester of an MFA program. By the end of that term, he had another acceptance, and an even more appealing scholarship offer, to the Memphis College of Art, where he would earn a Master of Fine Arts in digital art.
Before graduating though, Pan had the opportunity to study at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City, at one of its locations near TriBeCa. He walked out of the subway on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, to see the first tower collapse.
The scene was incomprehensible.
“I wasn’t scared or anything, until I saw people jumping out of the building (engulfed in fire),” he says. “That became the mental image that really stuck.”
By the time Pan accepted the position at Keene State, shortly after earning his master’s, experiences mundane and world-shattering alike had shaped Pan’s artistic expression, manifesting themselves in design and illustrations centered around personal experience and interpretation — and not just his own.
For much of his career, Pan says, the arc of his artwork bent away from the literal. Though his initial training is in painting and illustration, he increasingly turned to the digital medium for his projects, using animation and graphics to let audiences play with his ideas. An item he returns to time and again is the human form.
“The human body is the most familiar form; it’s fairly universal,” he explains. “So, when you manipulate a body, it’s very easy to communicate, because everyone can feel what you’ve done.”
His trajectory was shaken again early this decade by another tragedy, this one far more personal in scope, but no less profound. In 2011, Pan’s father died after a battle with leukemia. Pan had been back to China for visits since leaving, and he saw his father once after the diagnosis. But he was just days from his next trip back when he got the news.
“I didn’t get to see him for the last time,” Pan says. “So that was pretty painful, and very difficult to get over.”
His grief runs long and deep, and a couple years into the grieving process, Pan felt he needed to express his emotions visually to come to terms with them.
As he worked, panels in his sketchbook started to tell a coherent story, of loss, of regret, of home and family. Pan leaned into that, and in doing so, he found a new medium: visual storytelling.
The result was “The Last Goodbye,” a semi-autobiographical, wordless picture book. Its charcoal illustrations are equal parts haunting and nostalgic, and though Pan struggled to get it published, it was selected as one of eight finalists in the Silent Book Contest at the 2014 Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy, one of the largest such events in the world.
“And when I came back, I got approached by the publishers,” Pan says. “… And it’s funny because before (the fair), no one wanted anything to do with me, and now they’re approaching me.”
The experience spurred a passion for the format, and Pan is planning his next picture book. To some extent, the shift has meant a return to a more literal form of expression. Much of that, however, is by necessity — a book has to have a story, after all — and he finds the medium affords him plenty of freedom to create a space for that interaction between art and audience that is so central to his worldview.
With each scene, “I always, always, always try to question what’s the relationship between the object — why I put this object there — and the emotion of the story,” he says. “And I try to see what kind of emotion they can get from the reader.”