Soh Ee Shaun is one of the rare artists that you don’t see wearing black all the time; in fact, colour and pattern are his trademark identity. From characters that evoke smiles to probably every shade of the colour spectrum, his works (both art and illustration for commercial projects) under his studio Gardensilly are delightful visual spectacles exuding a childlikeness in spirit that reel you in; the titles of the works are just as enigmatic, poetic in a song-lyric way, if you get me.
Ee Shaun recently held a solo exhibition at Mulan Gallery. It is a culmination of his artistic journey, from more literal narratives to abstraction and symbolism (though even without more cerebral work, they are simply joyful to look at). Dominic Chua writes an informative and well-versed introduction in the exhibition catalogue:
“This isn’t to say that Ee Shaun only deals in happy-flappy art. Look harder and you’ll see that within his oeuvre are works that fall into the realm of socio-political comment – the kicking, squirming, scrum-locked xenophobes of ‘Residents Only’ (2014), his po-faced Singa the Courtesy Lion or ‘Girl or Boy’ – Two Will Never Be Enough’ (2012 and 2013 respectively, for Campaign City: Life in Posters), the latter with its wide-eyed family of twelve (and the knowing, possibly-autobiographical wink in the dark eyeballs under the eyes of its sleep-deprived parents)…now with ‘Looking in is the Only Way Out’…colour, composition and shapes serve as the vehicles for emotion and meaning…it’s no longer art as escape, but art as evolution, the commitment to personal growth.”
Visiting a person’s home is one of the most intimate ways of getting to know a person. And so, I made my way to Ee Shaun’s cosy abode at Dairy Farm Estate. There, there is hardly a plain wall in sight, as his (and his three-year-old son Antwone’s) collectibles/toys line the walls. It’s really heart-warming to see Ee Shaun’s work adorn his home: the squiggly lines and animated characters alongside the thick, dark-wood timber French doors, chinoiserie console and canvas of leafy green outside the windows make the former come alive in a casual manner; the elements of the weird and the abstract are pastiched with the mundane and mess in a familiar, actually quite delicious mise-en-scene.
It’s a reminder to me of how the creative life and pursuit livens up the humdrum of domestic life while the latter is ample fodder for inspiration. At the same time, the challenge of putting it all together is something that we can certainly all relate to—like art, it’s never about perfection; the learning is in the doing.
Here, Ee Shaun shares with us the way he’s doing it.
Can you share with us your artistic journey up till this point? Were you always the doodling kid in class?
Yes, how did you know? I was always drawing on my notes and textbooks in school. I can’t remember when I started, though some of the earliest drawings were of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I didn’t like the art curriculum in school, but I drew a lot of comics and wrote stories throughout my primary and secondary school days. I only started taking art seriously in my final year at NTU, shortly after interning at Nickelodeon as a graphic designer. I decided to focus on illustration and started Gardensilly when I graduated.
Who and/or what are the inspirations for your art/design work?
Mostly it’s Chris Johanson, Mary Heilmann, Maya Hayuk and Mina Hamada. Generally, I like artists who work with colours, and have an improvisational and laid-back style to their work. My current favourite sculptor is Damien Hoar De Galvan, who makes these fascinating and colourful wood sculptures. And Andy Rementer is still my favourite cartoonist-artist.
There is so much joy and delight in the colours, patterns and forms in your work. Are you a super-positive person? Are there other emotions that inform your work?
Thank you. I’m generally positive, so the artwork is a reflection of my personality. Since I’m putting my time and energy into something, I should channel it into something that spreads happiness and joy (although I must say I look much more serious in the process of creating art, since I need to concentrate!) There’s also a meditative quality in some of the pieces; a kind of stillness within the movement.
Your solo exhibition ‘Looking in is the Only Way Out’ at Mulan Gallery is ending on 16 January 2016. Can you share with us about the hard work that went behind putting up the exhibition? In terms of the work shown, how does that represent where you are in your creative journey now?
I already had the two doors from the ‘Destruction and Rebirth’ show (painted in January last year at The Mill), which I felt suited the theme, so I was waking up everyday and wondering what else to make. I decided to do a video installation about attaining enlightenment with some wood pieces I got in Bali. And I was primarily working with crayons and colour pencils to express ideas about simplicity and being child-like. I was almost working non-stop everyday—drawing, painting and colouring for two months. So that was quite draining.
Sometimes you’re working and worrying if you’ve created enough. That’s why I painted What’s done is finished, as a reminder to myself about needing to stop. Thankfully, I had a lot of help. Hanson from H55 Studio designed the catalogue, Dominic Chua (friend and Head of Creative Direction at Raffles Institution) helped me with the essay in the catalogue; and my friend and collaborator freelance motion graphics designer Kashmira Kasmuri animated the video. Of course, not forgetting David, owner of De Frame shop who helped frame and install the pieces at the gallery. And gallery owner Patricia Liang and gallery manager Peishi from who did everything else. It’s a lot of work putting up a show! So I’m very thankful to all these people involved. Two of my favourite pieces didn’t make it onto the walls (Trying to Simplify and Inward Gaze), but that’s okay.
I’ve been inclined towards abstraction since 2010 (Electric Boogaloo, for Phunk’s Transmission: Experience at Lasalle’s ICA), so this is my first solo show where I’m presenting mostly abstract works. I’m interested in the possibilities of generating energetic visuals using colour fields and geometric forms through improvisation. So what you see in the show are the outcomes of my exploration. Some pieces are very controlled, and some are pretty much out of control; it’s interesting to see how people respond to each piece.
Please share with us some of the ideas behind the graphics as well as the techniques used in some of your recent work (The mural at the corridor leading to the gastrobar in The South Beach; Dream Interiors‘Rush and Crush’ Tent Sale mural; Calico Stray Cat Plush for FARM; your painting for multidisciplinary design studio Lekker Design inside their studio).
The South Beach mural was created digitally, and was meant as an exterior hoarding, but it was later installed indoors near the gastrobar. /There were many themes in the South Beach brief, some of which spoke to me, like being ‘Alone Together’, and relaxation and play. I mixed the wave-like patterns of The South Beach roof into the artwork, with some people sleeping/dreaming in the pool; clouds using the colour palette provided by the hotel. This was a fun project, and the people at South Beach are super nice to work with.
The two pieces for Dream Interiors ( Swimming Away From The Pulsating Crush Of The Universe / In A Rush But I’ll Wait For You) were the first crayon drawings I exhibited publicly; they were unlike anything I’ve done to date. They’re like energy drawings. My 11-year-old cousin donated a whole bunch of crayons to me, so I decided to use them. They’re quite interesting texturally, and I love how vivid the pastels look on paper.
I’ve worked a lot with FARM over the years, and Calico Stray Cat is my favourite plush toy project to date. It took three years to materialise, but it was definitely worth the wait. It’s just silly to look at, and fun to hug. I created it for those people who wanted to keep cats but can’t have any (since cats are not allowed in HDB flats, unless you live in private housing). And I know some who love cats, but are allergic to cat fur. I have three cats myself. The plush was inspired by Kooky, my first cat given to me in 2007 by artist Sheryo.
Lastly, I met Ker-Shing and Joshua from Lekker Design at Art Loft’s ’49 going on 50′ exhibition, where I was doing a live painting demonstration. They really liked my artwork, and commissioned me for this piece in their new office at Tiong Poh Road. I had a lot of fun painting this piece inside their office. It’s also one of the largest pieces I’ve painted to date, and one of my favourite paintings.
The boundary between art and design is blurred in what you do. What are your thoughts about that?
Yes, it’s blurred, but there are grey areas everywhere in life anyway. People shouldn’t be too fixated on definitions. The world changes, so things will change and evolve, and so too will definitions of art and design. Isn’t it more interesting that the boundaries are blurred? I like it when genres mix and interchange. It puts you in a spot and makes you think for a while. But if you see clearly, you’ll realise that everything (in life) is in fact, a work of art.
How does the day-to-day operations run at home with your wife Caroline in looking after your son? How do you manage your time as educator, artist/designer, husband and father?
Both of us teach part-time at Republic Polytechnic. Our maid Emy takes care of Antwone, so that really helps. I paint at home on days I’m not in school, and I take breaks in between by playing with him. Antwone plays and watches cartoons by himself, so that’s very helpful when I need to grade assignments, paint or draw.
Do you involve your son in your antics at Gardensilly?
He’s had a hand at painting and colouring some of my pieces! Usually I draw with him on his own IKEA whiteboard. It’s much faster with markers, and we can come up with stories quickly. It’s also easier to erase and start again! You can’t really erase a painting.
What are your passions (including your work, and otherwise) and how do you wish to share them with your child?
I like music, art and Taiji. We sing and dance a lot at home. We took him to Singjazz last year, but they wouldn’t let us in, so we stood outside to watch and dance. But he’s much more into rock music. I think Antwone is a little young for Taiji now, though he enjoys playing with my sword.
Please share one personal parenting tip to new parents that you strongly believe in.
My parenting tip to all new parents is learning how to let the child go. Every child is different, and they take time to learn things. We shouldn’t place all our hopes and expectations in them. They can run their own race when the time comes.
Please continue this sentence: Play to me is:
To enjoy what you are doing.
Ee Shaun’s exhibition ‘Looking In is the Only Way Out’ at Mulan Gallery ran from 20 January 2015; it has been extended until 16 January 2016.
+ art images from Gardensilly; portrait and home photo credits: Playground