Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Q&A with Large-Format Calligraphy Artist Yunn Pann

Artist Yunn Pann answered some questions about her process ahead of her Demo & Do visits at the Denver Art Museum in December and January. Read on to find out what Yunn has to say about inspiration, teaching, and her craft.

Denver Art Museum: What is it about the materials/process you use when creating your large-format calligraphy images that intrigues you?

Yunn Pann: I started practicing Chinese calligraphy when I was little with my dad holding my hands. My calligraphy for many years had been very mediocre and timid-looking. In my 20s, I had the leisure of practicing Chinese calligraphy and pondering on some thoughts about the art of Chinese calligraphy, especially as a discipline of “Mind, Body and Spirit.” Of course, you need the hand to hold the brush and move the brush, but what does it really mean for the brush and body to come together? Later, I had the opportunity of finding a meditation that fits me very well, as well as some very interesting exercises that I now call “body-wisdom exercises." These disciplines have given me insights into the movements and grace of the body and the mind. Gradually, they freed me in many ways, including my way of doing and thinking about calligraphy. I have also discovered doing large-format calligraphy makes the discipline much easier and more fun to break loose of the way I was doing it. It is also one of the approaches I use to help students get into the “spirit” or “spontaneity” of Chinese calligraphy art.

DAM: You have been teaching for many years. What do you love about it?

YP: There are several aspects that I especially love about teaching: 1) I love to help people to have fun and gain insights and spontaneity in what they are learning, 2) teaching makes me more eager to study new things because now I am studying not only for me, but also to share with other interested people, and 3) students don’t have the burden of “tradition” on their shoulders. They have the freshness of the “beginners mind” to share with me. Part of the fun in Chinese calligraphy is that Chinese language does not have alphabet but many intriguing words. Many words have elements that give you clues as to the meaning of the words. For example, the Chinese “compound word” for “crisis” is made up of two characters: “danger” and “opportunity,” pointing to the opportunity or pivoting in the midst of “danger.” The Chinese word for “danger” depicts a person kneeling at a precipice. The Chinese word for “opportunity” or “pivoting” also means “machine,” but rather than having a “metal” element embedded in the character, it has “wood” element instead. This also brings one’s mind into ancient time in China when wood was very important in machines, such as a weaving machine. This is why, when I teach Chinese calligraphy, I always teach the meaning and intriguing aspects of the word or words. It is absolutely amazing that a language that started 4ooo years ago can evolve and become a fully functional language in today's sophisticated world, yet so different from English language in some very basic ways. A student of mine of many years ago had so much fun comparing these two languages, and it made him much more aware of his native language, English.

DAM: What really gets your creative juices flowing?

YP: Many things get me going. Usually, it is some interesting words with important meanings to me. For example, years ago, I went to a talk by Baba Ram Das. I was very impressed with his response to peoples’ questions as to how we can help people in some horrible war-torn countries. He said something like, “Do what you do, but keep your heart open.” Later, one day while I was driving or doing something like that, it suddenly occurred to me that the Chinese colloquial compound word for “having good times” is made up of two words: “open” and “heart.” Afterwards, I started trying different ways to write this word. There are so many intriguing Chinese words waiting to be explored. It is so much fun to share these words with people because they encompass thoughts that are beyond time and culture.

DAM: What would you do if you couldn’t be an artist?

YP: I do enjoy tremendously being a teacher – not just on Chinese calligraphy, but also on Chinese language. Chinese phrases and idioms are extremely economical and vivid expressions. For example, when describing the situation when people get excited and they are all talking at the same time, the Chinese expression only needs four characterss and they are made up of only four syllables – “seven mouths, eight tongues.” This is also why ancient Chinese poems can be so moving yet so succinct. One activity I enjoy doing is what I call a “mini-introduction of Chinese language.. I go to an event at a center or a corporation, and do people’s names in Chinese calligraphy. People are very interested because it is their name I am writing. They would quite often ask me many questions regarding Chinese language. Another seemingly different subject of my interests is the kind of exercises that are gentle but very profound, in the sense that they can help people gain the wholesomeness of their body in spite of our stubborn habits of rigidity.

DAM: How can people see your work in person or online?

YP: I live in Boulder, Colorado. People can always email me at yunnpann@earthlink.net and we can meet in person. I also teach at the Denver Art Museum, Colorado Free University in Denver, and have my own classes in Louisville and Boulder. I am working on having some of my artwork online. DecorAsian, the store in Boulder that carries my calligraphy prints and originals, is closing, so I am losing a very nice place to show my work.

Image info: Artist Yunn Pann assists a visitor with his work at a Demo & Do at the DAM.

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This originally was published as a blog post on the DAM's Collective website on December 5, 2011.

Rachel Reid is the adult and college programs coordinator in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Rachel has been at the DAM since January 2011 and her favorite artwork on view here is Lao Tzu by Mark di Suvero.