Edible carvings: A creative take on art, culture and global affairs

Photo of Anita Pan
Posted 2020-06-22
When Anita Pan began creating Oreo cookie cream carvings, she just wanted to share a fun activity over Instagram with her cohort at Princeton University. 

Pan has now produced over 50 works and attracted over 600 Instagram followers, including world-famous art galleries and curators. In the process, her cookie sculptures have become much more than a treat for the eyes; they are also a medium for social commentary. 

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise was one of Pan’s more challenging works of cookie art.

Pan, who lives in Vancouver, graduated from the UBC Sauder School of Business in 2009, and majored in marketing and international business. Back then, it was a difficult time for new grads as the global financial crisis had cast a deep freeze over the job market. Pan was one of the fortunate ones; she landed a position with the Canadian Foreign Service and wasted no time in becoming fluent in both French and Japanese. She was stationed in Tokyo as a trade commissioner at the Canadian Embassy to Japan for four years and upon her return to Vancouver in the fall of 2018, she connected with her former BCom professor, Danielle van Jaarsveld.

“Danielle taught Comm392 – Managing the Employment Relationship – and we’ve kept in touch all these years,” explains Pan. 

At the time, Pan was considering grad school and thought the Master of Public Policy program at Princeton University in New Jersey seemed like a great fit given her career experience as a trade commissioner and her interest in foreign policy. Van Jaarsveld, who is a graduate of Princeton University’s undergraduate program, encouraged Pan to apply. As part of the application process, Pan submitted a policy paper on a problem in the world she would like to address. 

“I wrote about how I would like to be a bridge between Canada and Asia, and focus on Canada’s foreign policy,” says Pan. 

Pan was accepted into the one-year graduate program along with just 20 other students. She graduated in June and also obtained a certificate in Science Technology and Environmental Policy. 

“I worked on science and technology policy in Japan and I’m really interested in fostering international collaboration within the start-up ecosystem, so I wanted to learn more from the U.S. perspective,” she explains. 

The COVID-19 outbreak forced Pan to return to Vancouver on March 20. Classes moved online and she and her cohort began meeting on Zoom. While self-quarantining at home, Pan saw an Oreo cookie carving on Twitter of The Scream by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Amused, she decided to try one herself and one thing led to another. 

“My first carving was of Little Dancer by Edgar Degas,” says Pan. “I shared it with my cohort and they encouraged me to keep going.”

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai is a fan favourite on Instagram.

The next day she carved The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. For fun, she posted a photo of her creation, along with an image of the original painting, on Twitter and later to her #cookiesforart Instagram account. Her social media channel began attracting followers who were delighted by what they saw.

Pan’s interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night caught the eye of MOMA staff.

“I am not an artist,” insists Pan, who uses nothing more than a toothpick for carving and contouring. Nonetheless, her third cookie creation, The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, attracted the attention of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, which shared her post with its five million plus followers. The next thing she knew, professional art curators began following Pan’s artistic journey in the medium of black and white Oreo. Friends began dropping off bags of Oreo cookies at her doorstep and offering suggestions for other famous works to be sculpted in cookie cream.  

“As my collection grew, I wanted to be as diverse as possible so I included Renaissance, Impressionism and Contemporary works as well as sculpture and photography,” recounts Pan. “I also wanted to include women artists so I profiled two of my favourites, Kusama Yayoi and Emily Carr.” 

Pan’s Instagram account shows 53 days of new works of art, followed by a black screen. On June 2, Pan participated in Blackout Tuesday, a social media movement that acknowledged the anti-racism protests and international condemnation of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. 

Screenshot of Pan’s artwork and Blackout Tuesday.

It is at this point that Pan’s art project shifts in a new direction with a depiction of Cotton by Kara Walker, along with a message: “Reflecting a lot lately on our societies and what I’d like the world to look like in the future.”

Part of that reflection included the painful realization that her collection of iconic artworks didn’t include a single black artist. “When I started carving, I thought these could be fun, mini art history lessons, but I see now that this pool of artists was biased from the start,” admits Pan. 

Pan began researching the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and its portrayal through the medium of art. She has since posted three new carvings featuring works by black artists that speak to racial discrimination and social injustice. 

Pan’s depiction of Black Lives Matter artworks: Untiled by Lo Harris and Untitled by Mer Young 

Pan has also been pondering the differences between Canada and the United States with respect to race and culture. 

“I had traveled to the U.S. many times, but it wasn’t until I moved there for school that I felt quite a cultural gap,” says Pan.

“I grew up in Vancouver and have always called myself Canadian, not Asian-Canadian, and my friends would all say the same thing,” says Pan.

“In Canada, we ask people to identify if they are a visible minority, but we don’t ask them to identify themselves as African-American or Hispanic-American,” says Pan. “This hyphenation is such a big part of the American identity and so engrained in the culture and the way U.S. society functions that I think it’s created a class system,” observes Pan. 

Pan’s experience studying at a private Ivy League university has left her with questions about race, class, equity and access to educational opportunities; many of the same themes that have been raised in the anti-racism protests taking place across the globe. 

With her educational leave coming to an end, Pan will soon return to the Canadian Foreign Service. Her next assignment will take her to Ottawa. Working in international trade relations in the nation’s capital will give Pan a front-row seat on Canada-U.S. bilateral relations. 

“It’s a complex relationship for sure, but it’s also one of our country’s most important bilateral relationships,” says Pan. 

With her prior work experience as a trade commissioner combined with her master’s degree in public policy and cultural insights gained from living and studying at one of America’s most prestigious universities, Pan brings an impressive skillset to her role as representative of Canada’s foreign interests. 

Where she takes her COVID cookie project next remains to be seen, but her works to date are safely stored away in Tupperware containers. The collection is also on display on social media, serving as a contemporary example of the role public art plays in educating and engaging citizens in the social issues of our time.