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Dr. Gan Xu

Take out your dictionary. Find the word ‘impossible’ and destroy that page.

What differentiates MECA from your own college and grad school experience? My doctoral degree is from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It’s a much bigger school than MECA. At the time I studied there the enrollment was about 20,000. MECA has a much smaller population—370 BFA students—which means that students and faculty know each other  much better. Students are more than a name.

In China, there is the national exam for university each year. Every high school graduate in the entire country takes the same exam at the same time. Essentially, a student spends 12 years preparing for one exam. University tuition, if you are admitted, is less than $2,000 a year.

I was able to attend Vanderbilt University, where I earned a Master’s degree, because of a full scholarship­—and I worked hard to keep it. I knew I would have no second chances or opportunities. Friday nights we used to joke that the library was the “Library of China” because there were no American students in the library. I felt that American students didn’t value what they had, the opportunity to learn, the luxury of being able to study and learn.

Was there a professor who stands out in your mind as having influenced you? Dr. Milan Mihal. He is Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts now at Vanderbilt University. His area of expertise is Japanese art history. I arrived at Vanderbilt with nothing. I hadn’t even had the money to pay the application fee for the school. Dr. Mihal met me at the airport and brought me back to campus. I carried my bag and he unpacked everything he had brought for me, bedding, a bed, a table. He was a father figure but he also was very strict academically. I had to first complete a Master’s then go on to a Ph.D. Dr. Mihal was on my Master’s committee. I showed him the final printed copy of my thesis and he suggested that I change one term throughout the thesis, 129 pages. He was right. This was in the days before computers. So, I went back and I retyped the whole paper.

Dr. Mihal also taught me about teaching. If a teacher isn’t prepared and motivated about the subject he or she teaches, then the teacher is wasting the students’ time.

Why do you work in the medium you do? I was learning oil painting then found I wasn’t crazy enough to be an artist. You know, I did not go to high school. My father was an engineer, but when Mao Tse-tung came to power, my father was on the wrong side. As his son, I was not permitted entrance to high school. I learned everything myself. I prepared for the university exam and when Mao died, I took the national exam. I studied fine arts then moved into art history.

What do you do when you hit a creative wall? I have a mentor who is a commander in the military. He taught me how to face difficulty by saying, “Take out your dictionary. Find the word ‘impossible’ and destroy that page.”

How do global events and issues, whether contemporary or past, inform your practice? A copy of my doctoral thesis is in the MECA library if you want the long answer! My field is contemporary Chinese art so I pay close attention to what is happening in China. I know many great contemporary Chinese artists. When I went to Vanderbilt, my father took me to the airport. He said, “Son, you got enough, I got enough, never come back.” I did not return to China for eight years. I came to the United States for freedom, where there is no persecution, no communism.

Have you ever worked / presented outside of the U.S.? I’ve published books and journal articles in both English and Chinese, primarily on contemporary Chinese artists. I have lectured at Harvard University, Guizhou Teacher’s University, the College of Art at Guizhou University, and Lanzhou University. As an artist, my oil paintings and Chinese ink paintings have been exhibited in Maine, Ohio, Tennessee, and in China.

What country, that you have never visited, would you like to visit?  Tanzania. Dr. Aimée Bessire raised money to build a school there through a nonprofit called Africa Schoolhouse. I would like to volunteer to teach in that school. It is an elementary school.