Visual artist Mu Pan has been heads-down with his sketchbook and canvases for decades, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, he celebrated the publication of his first book of illustrations in November, 2020. Entitled American Fried Rice: The Art of Mu Pan, the book includes many of Pan’s intricate renderings of bestial creatures and war-torn settings. 

Born in Taiwan, Pan immigrated to the U.S. two decades later, attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City and earning both a BFA in Illustration and an MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay.   

But drawing was a passion for Pan long before adulthood. “I do remember the first image that made a big impact on me, a movie still poster of Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon on my uncle’s wall in his bedroom,” Pan recalled. “I was probably about three or four years old. 

This discovery of Lee still remains at the forefront of Pan’s work. “After that, all the way until these days, Bruce Lee has influenced every part of me,” Pan said. “And his image and his reference appear in many of my works.”  

Pan’s drawings started more modestly, when he used chalk to draw pictures on his neighbors’ walls – much to their consternation. “After many incidents and several complaints, my mother bought me a small blackboard,” he said. “My uncle started to staple the blank newsprint paper together as a sketchbook for me, and from that time, I started to develop the habit of drawing sketchbooks and making stories up to entertain myself.”  

In high school, Pan got serious, attending a technical art high school in Taipei. “The teaching and training there was very old school and outdated,” Pan said. “They basically just taught me how to render from photo reference and how to use tools.” Pan found this discouraging. “There was zero creativity at all,” he recalled. “My interest in arts was completely erased by that school.” 

Once in New York, Pan’s inspiration was rekindled, and he became a sponge for various artistic traditions. “I am very into ancient arts, especially storytelling,” Pan said. “I like Buddhist art, Flemish paintings, medieval manuscripts, Indian and Persian miniatures, Native American drawings from notebooks, Thai murals in temples, and old medical illustrations, as long as it contains many figures and with no Western academic influence. 

With an interest in drawing animals of all kinds, Pan makes an especial study of nature.  “I also love watching documentary films about wildlife and nature, especially when predators hunt and consume their prey, alive,” he said. “I find it extremely fascinating.” 

Reading has been influential too. “I grew up with Louis Cha’s novels,” Pan said. “I had read his work multiple times since I was 15, and later on, I was obsessed with some of Mo Yan’s books. 

Pan is proud to have published his first monograph, American Fried Rice, but thinks of it in practical terms. “It’s like a resume,” he said.  “It’s good to have a book published for my dealer and for my career.”  

The process of creating the book was highly collaborative. “I gave all the images from what I had made in the past ten years to the editor,” Pan said. “Then he decided on what to put in with his design. 

But even more exciting for Pan than having his work published and shown in dozens of exhibitions for the past two decades is the recognition he received from Japanese film actor Tatsuya Nakadai. “I drew the characters from Kurosawa’s movie Yojimbo,” Pan said. “I was super lucky to have the chance for showing Nakadai that drawing and had him sign on it.” 

Still, building a career in the arts hasn’t been easy, especially financially. “I have zero marketing skills and I don’t like to build up my network for helping my career,” Pan admitted. “I just stay home and draw, like Henry Darger. Actually, I am like Henry Darger with an iPhone.” 

Pan is a true introvert workaholic. “I ignore everything around me, because I am consistently scared,” he said, “and just because I am scared, I work non-stop.” 

With this constancy, Pan has no specific plans for his next project. “I will just keep making images every day and keep evolving,” he said, “like how I was yesterday and the day before.”  

His determination is resolute. “I have no control over how people are going to react to my work after they see it for the first time,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter how people react, they are not going to stop me from working.” 

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