Pearl Kok custom-makes boundaries to connect

Pearl Kok custom-makes boundaries to connect

While a frame delineates a boundary between the world an artwork depicts and its surroundings, Pearl Kok connects with people through the craft of frame-making.

By Lee Kwai Han

As I walk into the Pearl Frame Maker workspace on Jalan Pintal Tali, Pearl Kok is scribbling in a bill book while her daughter and nephew have just finished assembling a frame. After a brief introduction, I look around for a seating area to settle down for the interview session. 

Pearl notices my wandering gaze and asks, “Do you need somewhere to sit?” 

“It’s going to take an hour or so. Maybe we should go somewhere comfortable for the interview?” I say.

“It is comfortable to talk while standing,” she replies.

I’m immediately reminded of what I’ve read about picture frames. A frame separates the world depicted inside it and the reality of the viewer while it subtly shapes and directs the viewer’s experience. Isn’t this an invitation to experience her frame-making world? Looking around, I realise there are no stools in the shophouse.

Framing What’s Precious

“Anything can be framed,” Pearl says. Items that have passed through her hands include paintings, photographs, calligraphy, antiques, puppets, tapestries, sports jerseys, medals, amulets, puzzles, and certificates. She likes to frame cross-stitch pieces the most. A cross-stitch piece made without a hoop comes with creases. It takes more patience and time to frame as compared to paper-based artwork. She finds great satisfaction in completing the challenge, returning the framed piece smooth to its owner.

Joining frame moulding which has been precisely cut with perfect 45° edges. Assembling custom-made frames is faster and easier with the aid of joiner and cutter machines.

A frame is utilitarian. It protects its contents from damage. It also holds a social function as it may portray the status, style, and belief of its owner. It may also be protecting a precious memento. “Sometimes, a custom-made frame costs more than the item it frames,” Pearl tells me. Pearl respects each item she handles, even without knowing the story behind it or the value it holds. Customers entrust her with their most precious pieces, be it of personal or monetary significance.

Pearl shares one of the most memorable framing requests she has gotten. A customer brought her a portrait of a beautiful lady in a sari and a set of necklace and earrings. He asked if she could attach the accessories onto the portrait as if she were wearing them. It took an artistic eye and great precision to achieve the effect. The customer was so happy with her work. Pearl says her most rewarding moments are when her customers’ faces glow with satisfaction upon receiving their framed pieces.

Borders that Connect

Through her frame-making work, Pearl comes across a diverse range of art lovers, many of whom she has become friends with. Some discuss with her frame choices to suit their artworks. Some gift her their esteemed artworks in appreciation of her craftsmanship. Some take beautiful photographs of her workspace and her cat. Some proudly share with her how the art pieces she has framed are now nicely hung on the walls of their residences.

Some of Pearl’s prized gifts from her artist friends.

Pearl’s tacit knowledge and craftsmanship, honed through hours practicing her craft, is now what connects her with others. This includes her daughter, one of their in-house frame makers, who has been learning the craft from her since her teenage years. 

Connecting with The Self

Unlike what many would expect of a handicraft trade in a historic city, Pearl did not inherit the craft of frame-making. She started out as a clerk in a frame-making shop and discovered her interest in the trade when she lent her colleagues an extra hand during their peak period. Since then, she took up frame-making tasks in addition to her clerical work. With support from her late husband, she started Pearl Frame Maker on Lebuh Chulia in 2000, embarking on a fulfilling journey. The workshop moved to Lebuh Presgrave in 2014 and later, to the current shophouse on Jalan Pintal Tali in late 2017.

The current shophouse on No. 5 Jalan Pintal Tali.

“Surprisingly, we’ve received more framing orders after the Movement Control Order (MCO) was lifted. Many stayed home and spent their ‘extra’ idle time cross-stitching and solving jigsaw puzzles,” Pearl says. How do the makers of these cross-stitch pieces and jigsaw puzzles value the pieces they frame? Will they be mementos of a little comfort in this turbulent year of pandemic and political chaos?

Pearl talks about her work with pride, although frames often do not get the glory the artworks they frame do. “A frame should not compete for attention with the artwork,” Pearl says.

“Bring me something to frame next time,” Pearl invites before I leave. The one-hour interview I expected turned out to be a three-hour session of chatting and observing how she and her daughter work on the frames and interact with their customers. 

My conversation with Pearl got me to reflect: what precious thing would I want framed and preserved in this fast-changing and chaotic time?

Lee Kwai Han manages arts and environmental education projects in Penang. Despite her training in engineering, she believes arts is the software solution our society needs.