We caught up with Winnie at her new studio space at The Art Assembly to find out more about the inspirations behind her work and to discuss the importance and relevance of art residencies today.
Geared with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Toronto and a Master of Arts from the University of Brunei Darussalam, Winnie Cheng is a formally trained artist practising in Penang. However, her unique style and use of medium in her current art works were developed over time after she has completed her formal education.
Drawn by the lush nature, green spaces and the island surrounded by water, Winnie moved from Brunei to Penang in 2014. With no prior contacts established, she navigated her way through this newfound art community and expanded her network, crediting the community in Penang which welcomed her with open arms.
PAD: What does your work aim to say?
Winnie: My work explores the theme of storytelling through detailed drawings, papercuts, pyrography, and painting. I’m currently developing the Strange Botanicals series which is set in an imaginary world populated by fruits and animal-headed humanoid characters. These characters engage each other in various ways; some are running from their past, some have stolen something from someone, and some are searching for answers to the future. Multiple threads of narratives interweave until they form a tapestry of our inner impulses and motivations. Ultimately, Strange Botanicals is an introspection into human nature performed by these unusual puppet-like characters.
PAD: What are some of the turning points in your art career thus far?
Winnie: When I moved to Penang from Brunei, I did not have many contacts in the art circle. While participating in an artist workshop at Wei Ling Gallery in the E&O Hotel, I met two artists from the sembilan Art Residency Program who recommended me to the organizer of the residency. I was then accepted into the sembilan Art Residency Program in 2015, which took place in Seremban for three months. It was my first art residency experience and I took the opportunity to develop paper cut-out techniques in my works.
This then led to the development of my layered papercut Diorama series after the residency. I submitted one of my layered papercut piece titled ‘The Wondering Heart’ to the UOB Painting of the Year Competition in 2015 and won the Gold Award under the Emerging Artist category.
To me, these were the turning points in my career as it exposed me to the art world in Malaysia and gave me a clearer direction of where I want to go. After that, I participated in several local and overseas group shows through Artemis Art, a KL-based gallery. I also continued to participate in other group art exhibitions in KL and Penang.
PAD: Are art residencies still relevant today?
Winnie: Yes, definitely. Art residency programmes are beneficial for different stages in an artist’s career. There are various types of residencies – some are more suited for young and emerging artists which helps to improve their exposure whilst other residencies provide an opportunity for experienced artists to hone their skills and further expand their ideas.
In 2017, I decided to take a break from back-to-back exhibitions so that I could improve the theme of my work. At that point, my pieces were very scattered and I felt the need to have a focused theme to form a coherent series. I then signed up for another 3-months art residency program by Rimbun Dahan at Hotel Penaga. It was during this residency that I developed the core character of Durianhead and her bizarre friends that form the Strange Botanicals series. I continued to work on creating more characters and their individual backstories as well as collective narratives. Some of the early works from the series have been exhibited in Penang, KL, South Korea and Taiwan.
As we speak, I’m preparing for my first overseas art residency in London, courtesy of Khazanah Nasional Associate Artist Residency Program 2018 in partnership with ACME Studios, London. It’s definitely an exciting time for me!
PAD: How do you cultivate your network of collectors?
Winnie: I keep track of my collectors personally at the moment, though my methods can still be improved as I’m not very good at keeping in touch. I do keep a list of names and contacts of the collectors who have bought work from me, I do feel that coming up with a coherent series and doing a solo would be a good time to get back in touch with them again.
PAD: How do you seek out opportunities?
Winnie: The sembilan Art Residency Program has resources in place for their alumni. They invite their past artists to join artist talks, gallery visits, as well as other art events and these have really helped with networking and learning about Malaysia’s art industry. I have an online portfolio and active social media accounts which I’m beginning to utilize in order to get my work to a wider audience. During the past 3 years, I’ve been relying mostly on group exhibitions in KL and Penang to promote and sell my work. I actually planned to do a solo exhibition last year but felt that my works were not ready but that exhibition is still definitely in the works!
Right now, I’ve also encountered other platforms to show and market my (self) and my works. PechaKucha Penang was one such platform, I was a presenter during the 4th instalment and I got to know other artists’ works better in later instalments as well as an audience member.
I’m also part of The Art Assembly, which is a studio space/art initiative in George Town. Through Art Assembly, I have more opportunities to collaborate as well as to share what I’ve learned through this platform. We are now working on a programme of workshops which will begin to roll out in June.