24 Minutes with Malaysian graphic artist Arty Guava
Born and raised in Penang, Vancouver-based artist Lay Hoon is a true "Penang kia". After relocating to Vancouver with her family and living abroad for years (she moved to Singapore after secondary school to pursue a degree in Bioengineering), Lay Hoon still considers Malaysia her real home—she even proudly announces that she is Malaysian in her Instagram bio! "It is a place my heart and stomach call home," she says. And reveals that she misses indulging in our local delicacies such as Penang Laksa and Nasi Lemak, and will go as far as spending CA$12 (approx. RM40) for a Malaysian meal in Canada.
Only three years in Vancouver, Lay Hoon (also known as her moniker Arty Guava) has already made her mark in the local art scene. She is a participant in the Vancouver Mural Festival and 2021 is her second year participating. Somewhere in the city of Vancouver, there is a wall as wide as 56 inches and 22 inches tall, beautifully decorated with her art. Closer to home, she has collaborated with Singaporean designer Ong Shunmugam for a collection of casual wear printed with her colourful and quirky designs.
Read on as we speak to her about her artistic style and inspirations, and her hopes for the local art scene.
BURO: How did a Penang-born artist find herself in Vancouver?
Lay Hoon: "About three years ago, my family (myself, my husband, and my five-year-old son) decided to move to Vancouver for work reasons. I had great difficulty adjusting to my new environment (perpetual rain and gloomy weather from autumn to spring, building new friendships, homesickness). Just when I was getting used to life in Vancouver, the world was hit with a global pandemic, Covid-19. With so much uncertainty and chaos happening around the world, I really needed something to centre myself.
"I started illustrating religiously every night after I put my son to sleep and sharing my works on social media. It was something to take my mind off my worries and to focus on things that make me happy. I was yearning for the warmth of the sun (it rains nearly 200 days in a year in Vancouver!), female companionship, freedom of movement, and the familiarity and comfort of home. The women often seen in my art are my 'companions' born out of social isolation. That is how it all started."
BURO: Arty Guava is such a cute and unique name. Can you tell us more about your moniker?
Lay Hoon: "It is a combination of the two main loves of my life—art and guavas. Hence, Arty Guava! It was actually my husband who came up with that moniker."
BURO: What inspires your work?
Lay Hoon: "I draw inspiration from my idyllic childhood in Penang, my son, and the natural world around me. I'm often inspired by how free, silly, and full of life my son can be and I try to capture that mood and feeling in my illustrations. All of us need a little reminder on how to be a child again."
BURO: Describe your style to us in three words.
Lay Hoon: "Whimsical, joyful, easy-going."
BURO: What mediums do you use to create your art?
Lay Hoon: "I used to work a lot with watercolour but I found it to be an unforgiving medium. Not a lot of space for mistakes. But since having a kid, I started creating more on my iPad as it is less messy and I don’t have to worry about my son tipping over my glass of water. (True story: He did tip over a glass of water over my laptop which cost me CA$1,500 to repair it.)
"I’m also currently experimenting with acrylic on canvas, which I only do after my son sleeps at night."
BURO: Please walk us through your creative process.
Lay Hoon: "I would usually start by checking in with myself and focusing on what I am feeling at that moment. Maybe it is loneliness because I miss hanging out with my girlfriends. So with that, I would create a piece that reminds me of the joy of being with my friends. The picture might turn out to be a bunch of women dancing, having fun, and being carefree. Most of the time it is set in a tropical background because it reminds me of home (Malaysia and Singapore)."
BURO: Can you tell us more about the women 'companions' in your work?
Lay Hoon: "I love drawing female figures because to me, they represent nurture, care, and gentleness, and those are the qualities that I naturally gravitate towards. Also being female myself, I just feel like it is a subject I’m more familiar with and can easily relate to."
BURO: Tigers are also a common motif in your art. Why is that?
Lay Hoon: "My fascination with tigers stems from it being my Chinese zodiac sign. They are ferocious and fearless but at the same time have a lot of elegance."
BURO: What do you hope to convey in your work?
Lay Hoon: "I see my work as little nuggets of hope and joy. When we are bombarded by nothing other than bad news every day, I hope my work offers people a little respite, reminding us of the little joys in life."
BURO: Are there any artists that you look up to and are inspired by?
Lay Hoon: "I’m inspired a lot by the works of Paul Gaugin, Henri Matisse, and Gustav Klimt."
BURO: We see that you’ve participated in the Vancouver Mural Festival. Tell us more about your experience and the work you did there?
Lay Hoon: "It is pretty surreal. Just a couple of years back when I first arrived in Vancouver, I remember exploring all the murals around the city and thinking that it would be so cool if I could do a mural one day. I decided to just apply, not expecting to be selected.
"This is my second year participating and I was given a wall with a width of 56 inches and a height of 22 inches. I had two weeks to complete the wall but as life would have it, things did not go as planned as always. I had to complete the mural in five days instead due to a family emergency. I reached out for help on my social media and was really overwhelmed by the number of people who responded—some I knew, many were complete strangers.
"Coincidentally, the mural is about people coming together to overcome challenges and create a change of ‘gigantic’ proportions, to achieve things that would otherwise be impossible on your own. In reality, this was exactly what happened. People coming together to complete a giant mural in five days, which would otherwise be impossible with just me alone. All in all, it was an amazing experience."
BURO: You recently did a collaboration with Singaporean fashion designer Ong Shunmugam. What's the story there?
Lay Hoon: "The designer [Priscilla Shunmugam] found me on Instagram! I was so surprised when I got an email from her that I had to do a double-take. I was still a little awestruck to be working with Priscilla as I was a really big fan of her work since way back when she just started her label. I loved her unique and eclectic take on traditional pieces like the cheongsam and rattan furniture. Her brief was simple: Just do what I’ve always been doing, create something that was truly Arty Guava.
"When the collection was conceived, we were in the middle of a lockdown. As part of my pandemic coping practice, I would illustrate things that make me happy to take my mind off my worries. I’m drawn to illustrating dancing figures as they represented freedom—something we were lacking during the lockdown; and naturally, this was one of the main motifs of the collection.
"A collaboration usually feels like an experiment where each person contributes their own ingredients into the mix and something new and exciting comes out from it. For my collaboration with Ong Shunmugam, I did not know how the final pieces would look like until she revealed them online. It was very exciting to see the results of our collaboration and I was very pleased with it."
BURO: Have you also done a collaboration with a Malaysian brand or designer? If not, do you plan to do so and do you have a wish list?
Lay Hoon: "I have not had the opportunity but I would love to do so. I’m a fan of local brands such Whimsigirl, Fern, Kittie Yiyi and Maglifestyle. I’ve always dreamed of doing a jewellery collaboration as well as I have some background in jewellery design."
BURO: Do you have any favourite Malaysian artists?
Lay Hoon: "Most definitely! I have an unexplained fascination with all things weaved, and I am absolutely in love with the works of Anne Samat. I am also a fan of Shafiq Nordin. I love his style and his depiction of evil through monsters."
BURO: We saw that you collaborated with Frankie Magazine for a cover. Congratulations, tell us more about this!
Lay Hoon: "Another opportunity made possible by Instagram. They contacted me for permission to use one of my previous illustrations, 'Balancing Act', which they came across on my profile. Of course, I was thrilled and it was the first time my art graced the cover of a magazine."
BURO: How do you feel about representing Malaysia in art on a global scale?
Lay Hoon: "To be honest, it is not something I think about much. I knew that my art style had hints of Asian influence, but maybe not specifically Malaysian. I was not aware that my art reflected my Malaysian origins until I was told by multiple strangers who guessed my origins based on my art style. It was really a pleasant surprise!
"Whenever I think about Malaysia, I remember all the fond memories of a simple childhood, sunny balmy weather, lush tropics, and tropical fruits. That is what I like to depict in my art so the rest of the world can share my joy and love for Malaysia as well."
BURO: Being so far away from home, do you still feel a connection to Malaysia? If so, how do you continue to relate to our local culture?
Lay Hoon: "Most definitely. I’m fiercely proud of my Malaysian origins. Whenever I speak, it is obvious to anyone who is familiar with our accent that I am either from Malaysia or Singapore. I keep my passion for Malaysian culture and life through food. I have an insatiable appetite for Malaysian cuisine and often seek it out even though I have to pay an exorbitant amount for it—CA$12 for a bowl of Assam Laksa, which is around RM40)."
BURO: How do you feel about the art scene in Malaysia? Do you think the arts is supported enough back home?
Lay Hoon: "I feel the art scene in Malaysia is definitely flourishing, with more galleries popping up and more art festivals being held. One of the things that could be quite discouraging, that I personally experienced while growing up in Malaysia, is that being an artist is often not seen as a legitimate career choice and more as a hobby.
"Up to today, I still get quizzical looks and subtle criticism whenever I reveal that I am an artist/designer. As we see more local artists achieving success in their field, hopefully, this way of thinking will change. I hope to see more local artists showcasing their work in the global arena. I feel that Malaysia has a very unique story to tell, being the melting pot of so many cultures and influences."
BURO: What advice would you give to young and aspiring Malaysian artists and creatives?
Lay Hoon: "The road is long and winding with endless challenges. It is hard not to get discouraged when nowadays you can easily compare yourself with other artists just by looking at their Instagram profiles and gauging their success based on the number of likes they get and the number of followers.
"My advice is to shut out the noise and focus inwards on your art practice. Spend your time thinking, planning, crafting, and working on the art you want to create instead of worrying about whether people will like it. The rest will sort itself out once you are true to your inner voice."
Follow Lay Hoon's art journey at @artyguava.