Art that's astonishing

By Christine Clarke, April 2012

Samuel Jan says it’s all about moving people with beauty.

Samuel Jan says he’s basically a loner, and that helps explain the comfort he gets from art. “[It relieves] the distance I have from my friends and my family. I moved a lot as a child. Art is something I can always rely on. My drawings and my imagination will never leave me, no matter where I move to. My mother raised me by herself. She had so many jobs. We lived inside a hair salon. We lived with two nuns at one point. People were constantly taking us in. Wherever she worked, we lived. I didn’t have too many childhood friends.” 

A child of Taipei until his early teens, Samuel Jan came to Canada via the United States, where he lived for 10 years with an aunt in Cleveland, Ohio, before arriving in Ottawa in mid-February back in 2006 (a very cold and difficult arrival). His mother stayed behind in Taiwan. It was thought a good opportunity to send him here to North America, an opportunity for the future. Although he sends many of his sketches and drawings back to her “as a way to be in the lives” of his family, many of whom he has never met, he states that Taiwan is now a distant memory, a dream, his childhood. 

He says that his art includes a lot of images of mothers—it is a recurring theme. He sees his mother only every three years or so when she travels westward. He has not returned to Taiwan since leaving. He says softly, “I’ve accepted the situation. Many good things have come out of it. All these years of coping with independence. I’ve had to rely on myself and on things other than human interaction.” 

He is a spare man, 31 years old. A graduate of the Algonquin College culinary program, he earns his living as a sushi chef at Shiki Sushi here in Victoria, an occupation he enjoys because “it’s fun and kind of artsy.” Wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a shock of black hair soft on his neck and his forehead, he is gentle-seeming and precise, but as he tells his story one realizes that this is a person sophisticated, experienced, and deeply thoughtful. Pleasantly so. 

He makes a nice pot of coffee and politely offers me a comfortable seat on the sofa after showing me the various pieces of his artwork hanging on the walls of his very tiny apartment. Located downtown, the space is approximately 350 square feet, looking something like the interior of an offshore sailing boat, with huge windows and a gas fire place. Samuel lives here with his girlfriend, the only real sign of whom is a rather pretty collection of shoes arranged near the front door. This little home is also the studio where he makes his stunningly beautiful drawings.

Samuel Jan is a self-taught artist, propelled along through the years by something other than the ambition to earn a degree or receive grant monies. He explains that “art is very personal. I’m disappointed in art without feeling. I don’t believe in art…[needing to be] weird and quirky. It’s about making something beautiful and that of course is about interpretation, but if you have that in mind it will affect your art. I believe it is the responsibility of the artist to create something that will move people.”

He generally works with charcoal, although he also makes charming watercolour and collage pieces, as well as shadow boxes, all on a relatively small scale in accordance with the space available to him. He strives to create images with a “dark, eerie kind of feeling. Something mysterious but something you can relate to.” He adds that “no matter what materials I use, it’s all very detail-oriented. I tend to gravitate towards the the finicky work.”

His drawings of trees and women and animals, and sometimes of animals and humans morphed into new creatures, are gorgeously rendered and starkly dimensional against the flatness of the creamy paper he uses. They are dreams. So beautiful. He began using charcoal several years ago when he was “asked to do a bird for a charity auction. A cormorant. I wanted to convey that black without paint. I tried charcoal.” From there he moved onto a series of land animals: moose, caribou, bighorn sheep, buffalo and musk ox; highly realized, even formal, portraits of the wild in sharp velvet blacks and soft and even softer shades of delicate gray. 

He elaborates on his practice, explaining that charcoal is “very difficult to control. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out! I’m left handed. I draw right to left. Seventy percent of my drawing time is spent shaping pencil tips to make them very fine. The rest of the time is spent drawing.” He is equally particular about the paper he uses. He says, “My favourite paper is Strathmore Drawing paper. It’s so smooth you don’t feel any of the grain, and it’s got this creamy colour. It takes charcoal so well and makes the drawing very fine. Usually with charcoal you want a rough grain to catch the charcoal, but with a smooth paper the image pops out at you.” He goes on to say, “As far as charcoal goes, I know exactly what I want.”

As a participant (and finalist) at the first annual Victoria Emerging Art Awards in August 2010, Samuel Jan found a supportive relationship and continuing representation under the mentorship of Victoria Emerging Art Gallery’s Ellen Manning. This is vital to the development of an artist’s career. And Samuel Jan is an artist; self-taught, independent, astonishing. Look for his work during a group show called Field Notes, at the VEAG, April 6-25. You’ll see what I mean. 


See more of Samuel Jan’s work at and at

Christine Clark is a Victoria-based artist who writes about artists in Victoria and beyond. See her blog at