Croucher logo and calligraphy: an interview with Dr Phil Kwun Nam Chan

8 February 2024

One of the features you’ll have noticed about Croucher Foundation’s website is that it features a logo based on a traditional Chinese seal carving by the calligrapher and scholar Dr Phil Kwun Nam Chan, who is currently Associate Curator (Painting and Calligraphy) in the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

We caught up with Chan recently to learn more about the work of the artists behind the creation of the design that became Croucher’s distinctive logo.

Chan’s artistic journey got under way when he began to study fine arts at CUHK. He really enjoyed the courses, including the calligraphy component. But whereas he was encouraged by the feedback he got on his painting, he was taken aback to be told by one of his teachers that his calligraphy wasn’t very good at that time.

“That shocked me at first,” he said. “But I took it as a challenge to improve myself, so I began to work harder and keep practising calligraphy all the time.”

Chan went on to complete his PhD in the Department of Fine Arts at CUHK. Asked how he got into museum curatorship, he pointed to an experience he had at the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, DC (previously the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery) while completing a student internship there during his undergraduate days.

“I was walking across one of the galleries one day, wearing my museum credentials. I was taken as an employee by an American family who were looking at a bronze Chinese artefact and had many questions. With my basic knowledge, I was able to answer the easy questions, and they were very happy. But when they asked more searching questions about the artefact, I realised that my own knowledge was very limited. How was it that I knew so little about my own culture? So, this became a spur to me to develop my knowledge through further study and become an expert,” Chan told us.

Later in his career, Chan had the chance to show that expertise while conducting research in the US at the Princeton University Art Museum, thanks to the generous support of the J. S. Lee Memorial Fellowship Programme. At Princeton, he was focusing on the Song to Qing letters, as well as the colophons on the Song and Yuan paintings and calligraphy. Among those projects, he was able to study the collecting history of the “Three Letters” by the Song dynasty master calligrapher Mi Fu (1152-1107) in the collection there. Chan was able to analyse the works in detail and come up with a new order for the “Three Letters." "Originally, there were five letters," he explained. “These were later collected by different collectors, and chops were stamped on them to ensure the completeness of these letters and their order. In the early twentieth century, the last two letters were separated from the set. However, by studying the way the marks of the chops fitted together, I was able to determine in which order they had originally been assembled,” Chan said.

“One of the interesting things about the way an artwork like this can evolve over time is the seals or annotations (colophons) that they gather. In this way, an artwork continues to develop or change over time as it changes hands between collectors. However, once it reaches a museum, it ceases to change, and a new phase in its existence begins.”

Chan doesn’t always get as much time as he would like to practise his own calligraphy. “Teaching calligraphy classes helps me, though," he told us. “It gives me the time and focus I need.” For Chan, Hong Kong is an inspiring place to practise calligraphy. “There’s huge interest here,” he told us. “And any course or exhibition space is always full.” One of the attractions for a lot of people is that calligraphy involves quiet and focused attention, which allows them a period for reflection. “It’s also a very physical activity,” he added. “You might stand next to a large space on a wall, a floor, or a table, creating your calligraphy. I think this is why some people find it both relaxing and good for their mental well-being.”

Then we asked him about the Croucher logo. “I won the competition organised by Croucher Foundation in 2010,” he recalled. “I looked carefully at the Croucher mission statement. I wanted something that was traditional in its look but also used some more modern techniques, for instance, a relief style. I was happy to have won, and I am really happy to see the design of the logo they made out of my carving. I think it looks great.” 

This seal carving by Dr Phil Chan was the winning entry in the competition to design a new logo for Croucher