A giant hibiscus. A bloom so large and striking that it draws you into the canvas like a magnet. Perched on one of its giant petals is a little girl, her long brown hair dancing merrily in the night wind. Transfixed, she stares towards the inky darkness where a golden crescent moon shines its ethereal ray on some tiny petals floating gaily in the night sky. Momentarily, you BECOME that little girl looking out to the moon. And for that moment, a sense of serenity pervades.
“Your coffee, ma’am!” And just like that, the trance is broken. Tearing my eyes reluctantly away from the canvas, I’m back in the heaving bustle of a local Bangsar café and looking into the bemused eyes of artist Samantha Cheah and Ying Hwei, from the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA). Outside, it’s not the moon but the sun that makes its presence felt with its stifling heat.
Cheah was one of the artists whose artwork was selected to be showcased under CENDANA’s Art in the City campaign, an initiative which started last year in January and designed to raise greater awareness of the local arts and cultural scene. A call was put out for local artists to submit works that would contribute to the visual imagery of the capital. The theme? Things that represent us as Malaysians.
More than 1000 submissions were received, a number that was subsequently whittled down to 30 after being reviewed by art scholars and experts. The shortlist was then open to the public to vote; the artworks receiving the most number of public votes are now being displayed across the city for up to six months.
The KL-born Cheah actually submitted two entries; one was of an exquisite kampong house, and the other, entitled Be With Me, Brave Heart (the blooming hibiscus piece) was the one that captured the judges’ (and later, the public’s) attention.
“Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re the artist whose work I’ve been following all this time,” I exclaim incredulously to the soft-spoken Cheah, whose wide beam reflects her delight. Prior to our meeting, I’d actually been downloading from the Internet numerous images illustrated by an artist known as YueYue. The style –poetic whimsy is how I’d categorise it – simply enchants. Never in a million years did I envisage ever actually coming face to face with the artist.
“My favourite one is the one with the whale and the little girl on the boat staring at the full moon. It’s really magical,” I tell her, the words tumbling out in my excitement. Her eyes dancing, the 36-year-old story-telling illustrator reaches for her Ipad and opens it to a gallery of her work. “This one, you mean?” she poses mischievously as my head bobs in recognition.
She swipes to another picture, and then another; and I couldn’t help gawking at the exquisiteness of her canvas. There’s a distinct style that’s so simple, childlike and yet so captivating. Her canvas oozes gently with emotions and feelings and somehow, your own emotions are stirred too. And the one thing that jumps out from her art? A sense of contented serenity. Like, no matter what happens, hope floats.
WHAT STIRS WITHIN
Asked to describe her style, Cheah, , who has over 14 years of experience as a graphic designer, and is now a Head of Design in her company as well as a guest lecturer for Dasein College replies: “I don’t do paintings or anything. I do illustrations on my computer and my style is more Taiwanese (style of art). Taiwan art illustrations are inclined towards modern art and they like to have human figures as the subject. There’s also a lot of exploration of feelings and subject of healing. That said, it can be whimsical too.”
She cites the famous Taiwanese illustrator and picture book writer, Jimmy Liao, as her favourite artist. “His works are so nice. He draws things from his imagination and his feelings. He actually suffers from cancer but continues to draw and inspire through his canvas.”
Bringing her attention to her Art in the City entry, which is holding court on a wooden easel set just by the entrance to the neighbourhood mall, I ask Cheah about the story behind it. “The hibiscus is our country’s national flower and symbolises bravery, strength and vitality,” she begins, adding: “I drew a night scene as the background because we can see the moon so much clearer when the night is at its darkest. I wanted to highlight that even in the dark, we can still find light. It’s a reminder that we can never lose hope no matter what, and that we can still count our blessings when faced with difficult times.”
Her expression turns earnest when she points out that the hibiscus in the illustration has yet to bloom fully. “Those petals flying towards the hibiscus represent every difficult moment and obstacles that we face in our life. We learn and we gather our courage. We have to let go of our mistakes and have the courage to move on. Someday we too will bloom just like the hibiscus - bold and beautiful. A testament to our courage and bravery.”
Asked what inspired this particular piece of work, Cheah replies simply: “Life. The things I have gone through in my life.”
THERE’S ALWAYS LIGHT
Cheah, a single mother of one, confides that it was through the most trying time in her life that she found light – her art. In fact, YueYue, her artist pseudonym, was born from her period of darkness. Recalls Cheah: “I was going through a tough time – trying to salvage my marriage. I still wanted the relationship and was doing all I could to not see it break down. I dared not tell anyone, including my family or my friends.”
All her pent up feelings found refuge on paper. It was the only way they could be released. Shares Cheah: “I started drawing the little girl, YueYue in various different scenes, depending on how I was feeling. But I kept the drawings to myself and never showed to anyone.”
Her smile serene, she directs my attention to her work with a picture of the whale. “This was also based on something that I was going through. Essentially the message I want to convey here is that no matter what, being kind and honest are traits we must always uphold. It’s a choice, of course. For me, when obstacles come up in my life, I must always choose to be honest and true.”
It was quite some time before Cheah, who has three sisters, decided that she’d allow a friend to see the work she had been hiding. And she’s glad she did. “I showed my pictures to a friend. He was so surprised. He encouraged me to start doing more. Then I showed my work to more friends. They were so encouraging. For some reason, I never thought that the kind of art I was doing would attract so much positive interest. I felt so happy!” Her brand, YueYue has been around just under two years.
The scenes she paints always seem to be set in the night, I muse aloud. Cheah chuckles before good-naturedly refuting my claim. “Not always. But I’ve had friends mention the same thing! For me, it’s at night that we can see the moon and stars shine so brightly. What I want to say is that even when things appear bleak or dark, you must not lose hope. Just carry on and count your blessings because there will be light. Human life also has seasons. Things will pass – just like seasons change.”
Cheah soon began receiving invitations to participate in various art events. To date, she has been involved in the Malaysia International Cultural Show, Malaysia-China Cultural Arts Year and The Blossom Art Festival Malaysia. Meanwhile, her works have been exhibited at Yunlin International Art Exhibition & Exchange Dialogue in Taiwan; Yilan International Art Exhibition & Exchange Dialogue, also in Taiwan, and the Asia Art Exchange Exhibition (Korea).
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
“In life, you must always believe that things can only get better,” reiterates Cheah, who’s been divorced for four years. Dreamily, she confides that one day she wants to be a full time artist and have her own space. Chuckling, the doting mother shares that at the moment she can’t even think of doing more than what she’s doing now because “…I can only do my work when my 7-year-old daughter goes to bed! Normally, I’d either wake up very early like 5am to draw or when she’s sleeping. My space is a little too small for me to expand into other types of art.”
That said, Cheah shares that she’s currently learning printmaking. “I need a big space; I need the machine. At the moment, I don’t have (the latter) so I need to use my hands and press. I don’t really have the strength. This affects the outcome but I guess I don’t really have a choice. One day maybe I’ll be able to have my own studio where I can put all my work and equipment.”
Something else that Cheah, who also plays the violin and piano, dreams of is to publish a book. My raised eyebrows lead her to explain: “I’d like to publish a book about single parents and overcoming obstacles. I meet a lot of broken individuals. When I started to draw and write, a lot of people came to me to tell me their stories. It’s really sad. Sometimes you think a family is really happy but behind the façade lies a different story.”
Solemnly, she continues: “When my friends share with me their (sad) stories, sometimes I’d draw on these small pieces of card scenes with YueYue and I’d give to them. I just hope that somehow little YueYue can become a source of comfort for the lonely and sad souls.”
A collective silence ensues as Cheah’s noble aspirations slowly sink in. Outside, the hitherto canvas of blue is turning a shade of grey. Clouds appear to be gathering. Reluctant to let the mood descend into sombreness, I ask the talented artist what’s coming up next.
Her bright smile returns and Cheah replies. “I have a printmaking exhibition in February here in Malaysia. A lot of big names from Taiwan will be involved. In April, I’ll head to Taiwan as an invited artist.”
Being a part of this CENDANA campaign has truly been a godsend, adds Cheah, as I alert her to my impending departure. “Another appointment,” I tell her. She smiles good-naturedly before concluding: “Before CENDANA, I was just doing the routine thing – work, teach, and so on. What has happened has given me hope that maybe my dream of being a full time artist can come true someday. I didn’t know that my type of work, so small and silent, could be well received. But now I know!”
For info on Art in the City, go to www.cendana.com.my