Issue Date: Feb 15, 2002
By Caroline Yount
There is a tension in the art of LiQin "Lee" Tan, though it's not readily apparent. A traditional artist influenced by ancient cultures and art forms, Tan has chosen a nontraditional medium in which to work that is centuries removed from the Chinese ink-brush figure painting or the exploration of Native American culture that he has explored in the past.
The progression of his own work and his commitment to sharing that art through teaching have taken Tan around the world. A China-born Canadian who joined the Camden faculty in 2000, he teaches two-dimensional and three-dimensional computer animation and graphics to students who seem as impressed by his commitment to their education as they are by his artistic talent and knowledge.
While Tan specializes in three-dimensional character animation technology using Softimage/3D, his work is balanced not only by his classical animation skills and his mastery of such two-dimensional animation software as Animo, but also by a larger historical and cultural tradition.
Still prints can only partly convey the full effect of his work. Tan's animation is best seen on a state-of-the-art computer or, better yet, projected onto a screen designed for three-dimensional animation. There, his horse inspirations, based on a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty relief, gallop; his Native American-inspired figures dance in a primitive ceremony; and his Earth King and Fire Queen rule.
In his art, Tan looks for, and finds, connections between seemingly disparate worlds. He is fascinated by the similarities between Native American and Chinese cultures, but most of all, he is intrigued by the idea of reinterpreting ancient images as technological works of art.
Computer animation substitutes digital technology and software for the pencils and paints of traditional animation. For his animation art, Tan doesn't draw pictures on paper frame by frame, but uses computer programs to create different kinds of models, including those of a "wire-frame" three-dimensional variety. He then painstakingly manipulates the model using NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B-Splines), mathematical representations of three-dimensional geometry that can accurately describe any shape, to create the perfect figure. Later, he works to find the perfect shade, which determines the surface texture.
Another important aspect of computer animation is lighting, which is critical in setting the tone or mood for the image. Perfection is the operative word in this method: Tan says he can create more than 100 versions of an image before he finds one he is happy with. All of these things are incorporated as the scene is rendered, edited and composited on the computer, a process that can take days.
Tan's creations reflect his cross-cultural experience as well as his background as an artist and an art critic. "The evocation of cultural essentials in my life has created a collection of visual memories that meld digital processes with classical sensations," he says.
His career has been a varied one. He went from teaching brush figure painting, art history and life drawing in Hengyang Teachers' College, China, in the early 1980s to working as executive art editor for Hunan Art Publishing House in China, where he founded Painter magazine.
By the early 1990s, he had immigrated to Canada, where he earned a master's degree in art education at Concordia University. He worked as an art director in Canada for several years while earning two postgraduate certificates in computer animation and graphics from Sheridan College in Ontario, a school known internationally for its classical and computer animation programs. Tan then moved to Singapore, where he lectured on computer animation and digital effects.
Along the way, Tan did some work for Disney's Saturday morning cartoons -- drawing the likes of Belle, Goofy and Aladdin. The company even offered him a full-time position, which he turned down because, fundamentally, he is an educator.
"He is such a talented teacher," says Roberta Tarbell, acting chair of the Camden fine arts department. "He spends more one-on-one time with students than any professor I've ever known."
"This is his life, not just his job," says senior Tony Gore. "He believes in all of us and never gives up on a person. Lee offers a lot of encouragement. He's very passionate about what he does, and it rubs off on his students."
One of his current projects is an interactive CD-ROM on the history, culture and spirituality of the indigenous peoples of the Americas titled "The Spirit of Turtle Land -- Through Indigenous American Eyes." The project, which is funded by a Rutgers University Research Council Grant, explores Native American spirituality through two- and three-dimensional computer multimedia.
Tan says that while his head often leads him toward state-of-the-art technology, his heart remains in the artistic realm. His artworks, which include his early paintings and folk art drawings mounted on bamboo, have been exhibited nationally and internationally, in solo and group shows, most recently at William Paterson University.
"Animation is an expressive art vehicle when its principles are applied in exaggeration," Tan says. (According to his students, Tan's favorite maxim is: "You don't have animation without exaggeration.")
"This exaggeration gives the artist tremendous freedom to create works with striking impact. Classical hand drawings can portray the artist's inner feelings, while digital technology limits it to a simple option layer. Yet, the digital techniques can interpret human emotions and yield artistic interpretations. The digital box is a tool, but it's an incredible tool."
In his own art and in the training of his students, Tan wrestles with the relationship between classical animation and digital animation. He questions how artists can apply classical animation principles to digital animation and how "one can maintain even harmony between advanced technology and aesthetic perception."
Yet for all his questioning, Tan never seems to lose sight of the needs of his students.
"He has an uncanny ability to look around a classroom and see who is frustrated," says senior Morris Gargiule. "Lee can help people find what computer modeling techniques work best for them; he can see not only where a person is, but where he should be."
This article was published in the Feb 15, 2002 edition of the Rutgers Focus and is available online at http://urwebsrv.rutgers.edu/focus/article/link/899/