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Faces of Berkeley: Wenqing Yan, activist artist

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Wenqing Yan creates anime style art with an activist perspective.


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FEBRUARY 29, 2012

UC Berkeley alumna Wenqing Yan admits that her following on the art website deviantART — where her profile page has more than 7 million views — is largely composed of 12-year-olds.

These fans of her art, which is styled after Japanese animation known as anime, often ask about the anime series she watches to inspire her work, to which she replies, “None.”

Instead, Yan points to UC Berkeley lectures — which she still attends despite graduating last semester — as her main source of thought-provoking material.

“If you’re taking your inspiration from existing artwork or stories, you’re not being extremely original,” said Yan, who majored in art practice. “But if you take things from reality, there’s always something new and novel going on.”

Yan is equal parts entertainer and activist artist. Fans pay her to create drawings of popular anime characters for them, but they also appreciate her works that support the Occupy movement, fight animal cruelty and illustrate the effects of pollution.

After the emergence of Occupy Cal on campus last November, Yan created “Occupy Imagination,” a piece that illustrates tents suspended in air by balloons, creative protest signs, books propped open as symbolic tents and countless supporters of public higher education.

While Yan creates many standalone works based on current events, her long-form comic projects have found success online, and two will be published by 4th Dimension Entertainment.

Her first book, a comic titled “1000 Words,” is set to be published in May, and she says that even though she is glad that people like her art, she hopes readers learn something from it.

Specifically, “1000 Words” depicts how a young person can overcome her parents’ divorce, much as Yan did. The girl in the comic beseeches an artist to teach her to draw so she can make something that will save her parents’ marriage, and he assures her that any picture she makes can communicate a message worth 1,000 words.

The artist comes across the girl years later and is disappointed to find that her parents divorced nonetheless. However, he finds redemption when the girl tells him that she has decided to become an artist so she can also use art to “change the world for the better one thousand words at a time.”

“There’s definitely a strong message of finding inner strength in hard times and figuring out where the real place is where you can look for that strength,” said Eric San Gregorio, owner and editor of 4th Dimension Entertainment.

“Knite” will be Yan’s second work published, this one in August, and it examines the way China’s heavy air pollution affects the youth there.

In “Knite,” a group of school children steal away at night to fly kites with strings of lights attached so that stars appear to be in the sky, giving hope that those who see the lights will one day see real stars instead of a smoggy haze.

The comic is informed by Yan’s own experiences in China before moving to the United States at age 9, having been surrounded by people who she says were constantly coughing up phlegm and spitting it on the ground.

“I feel like it’s easier to speak to people about those issues through art than with science and graphs that just go over their heads,” she said

Yan plans to remain near campus in the foreseeable future so she can continue researching potential projects. She continues to live within walking distance to make it easier to sit in on classes.

San Gregorio said he believes the comic industry often gets lumped together with larger publishers like Marvel or DC that focus on superheroes, but he sees the readership shifting toward comics with more substance like Yan’s.

He recognized that not all comics need to have philosophical messages behind them but noted that the ones that do communicate broader ideas that make more of a lasting impression.

“‘Watchmen’ had its fare share of sex and violence, but it transcends shocking and goes into provocative,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing I look for — something that has an important message in it. If you start talking without something to say, you’ll end up with boobs and exploding heads.”

Christopher Yee covers Berkeley communities.

MARCH 01, 2012

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