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UBC Sauder alum paints murals that celebrate nature and community

Carmen Chan mural
Posted 2020-09-24
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Carmen Chan (BCom 2009) is one of those rare individuals gifted in both analytical and artistic endeavours. By day, Chan is a Senior Business Analyst in IT at construction firm, Ledcor. In her spare time, she is a watercolour painter and muralist.

Growing up in Vancouver, Chan took art classes every Saturday and learned Chinese brush painting, one of the oldest art forms in the world. Through years of practice applying watercolour pigments to delicate rice paper, she developed an appreciation for the thoughtful and slow painting process. 

“Chinese brush painting is a bit of a lost art,” says Chan. “There are not very many people my age doing it. Everybody knows about Chinese food but they don’t know about Chinese art.”

Chan pursued a Bachelor of Commerce degree at UBC Sauder and then went on to build a successful career in IT service management. Painting provided the perfect antidote to her busy work life. 

Carmen Chan’s 2007 Chinese brush painting of irises and butterflies would become the inspiration for her 2019 mural at the Vancouver Mural Festival.

Carmen Chan’s 2007 Chinese brush painting of irises and butterflies would become the inspiration for her 2019 mural at the Vancouver Mural Festival.

When a hobby becomes a second career

After devoting 15 years to her artistic practice, Chan decided she was ready to showcase her favourite paintings. 

“I was lacking creative stimulus at work and there was no room left on the walls in my parents’ house,” laughs Chan. 

Having majored in Marketing, she put her business skills to use by digitizing her works and building a website and Instagram account. She also joined a local networking group for women artists called  Thrive Mastermind. Through this new community, she was invited to help paint a mural for the 2018 Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF). It was such a positive experience that the following year, Chan took a chance and applied to VMF as a solo muralist. Much to her surprise, she was selected for the 2019 festival. 

“Once I was selected, everything began to move so fast and that’s when my UBC Sauder mindset kicked into high gear,” recalls Chan. “The mural project was so big in scale and so different from any artistic or IT project I’d ever done. I needed all of my marketing skills, project management skills and problem-solving skills because it seemed there was a challenge to overcome onsite every day.” 

Chan was assigned an 84 by 20 foot wall of an automotive body shop on West 8th and Ontario in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. After undergoing training to operate a boom lift to reach the full height of the wall, she was given just two weeks to transform the bumpy concrete canvas into an urban floral oasis. 

“I basically painted from six until 10 every night after work and put in 12 hour days on the weekends.” 

She also assembled a small army of friends and family to help. After selecting one of her favourite paintings from her collection, she turned to her sister, Carol Chan (UBC ‘16), who is a UX and graphic designer. Together, they created a digital image and sized it according to the wall’s dimensions. Working in the dark, they projected the image onto the wall and she and her crew sketched the outline. The next stage of the project involved assigning paint colours and sections to her friends. The end result is a treat for the eyes and a gift to the neighbourhood. 

The mural is titled ‘Saturday kind of love’ in reference to Chan’s Saturday painting classes.

The mural is titled ‘Saturday kind of love’ in reference to Chan’s Saturday painting classes.

“There are always magical moments when I’m out in public painting,” notes Chan. “One day, some ladies who worked in a nearby building came outside and said thank you so much for painting this mural because we stare at this parking lot all day and it’s so boring, and now you’ve given us something beautiful and calming to look at.” 

Spreading a simple message of hope

With two mural projects on display and public recognition growing, this past spring Chan was approached by the VMF organizers to take part in Murals for Hope. The civic art project was launched to add some colour and life back into Vancouver’s downtown after businesses were boarded up with plywood to prevent looting during the COVID-19 shutdown. Chan was assigned the highly visible Rolex storefront beside the Shangri-la Hotel on West Georgia. 

“I decided to paint cherry blossoms because so many people in Vancouver love cherry blossom season. In many different cultures, cherry blossoms are a sign of spring and a reminder that brighter and warmer days are ahead.” 

Chan’s Mural for Hope project was inspired by a 1965 quote from Lady Bird Johnson: ‘Where flowers bloom, so does hope.’

Chan’s Mural for Hope project was inspired by a 1965 quote from Lady Bird Johnson: ‘Where flowers bloom, so does hope.’

The visual artist’s next big break was an invitation from the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Association to repurpose her 2019 VMF mural for a street banner that would run up and down Main Street from 2nd to 19th Avenue, and along Kingsway from 7th to 11th Avenue. 

Chan’s irises and butterflies adorn street banners in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

Chan’s irises and butterflies adorn street banners in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.  

“Because of my roots in Chinese brush painting, I always include my Chinese name stamp in my murals. The stamp really completes my vision of the banner and also accomplishes my goal of spreading the word a little bit about Chinese art. I want people to know that you don’t have to be 80 years old to do this kind of art. You don’t have to have Chinese ancestry. It’s fun and anyone can do it if they take the time to practice and be open to a new art medium.” 

From art student to teacher and mentor

Chan has taken her art practice a step further by teaching students the basics of Chinese brush painting. Her Morning Tea and Watercolour Painting Class offers a calm and relaxing space for students to slow down the pace of everyday life and let their minds be free to create.

Carmen Chan workshops.

Chan shares her love of art by holding drawing and painting workshops in her community. With COVID-19 making in-person classes difficult, she has pivoted to virtual classes. 

She has also reached back to her UBC Sauder roots, appearing as a guest speaker for the Creative Industries Society, a club started by two UBC Sauder students to help connect those interested in visual and performing arts. This fall, Chan along with other industry experts will participate in pecha kucha-style webinars and share some of the challenges and rewards of pursuing a creative career while maintaining a nine to five job. 

When contemplating the technical and creative sides of her life, Chan says she feels grateful for both opportunities.

“When I was painting the cherry blossom mural, this rainbow suddenly appeared, reflected in the glass buildings around me. I thought to myself, when what you do brings so much happiness then you know you have discovered one of your great passions.”