Pencil lines, blocks of colors, lazy yogis, and happy animals. Hong Kong-born and UK-raised artist Charlene Man refuses to settle with one style or stick to the rules, but her works all invariably add a touch of humor as the finishing stroke. After a series of successful exhibitions titled Down Time in Japan and Hong Kong that explored the subjects of stillness and relaxation as a defense of laziness, Man is now busy preparing her upcoming Taipei exhibition Small Thoughts in May, which will tackle the topic of “random thoughts.”
For Man, she considers being able to turn illustration into a full-time job as her biggest accomplishment. Many of her contemporaries have changed their careers or resorted to working for agencies. Being a free agent means more personal time and more room for creative growth, but self-discipline still played a big role in her success. Recently, we sat down with Man and had a chat with her about transitioning to a full-time illustrator, inventing words, and finding ways to be less boring.
Neocha: How did you start your career in illustration?
Man: It all started quite early on when I was at school. I was interested in doing art, but I always thought of it as a hobby. My parents were very against it as they wanted me to do math and science – like most Asian parents. I was quite rebellious and went with what I wanted to do. But back then, I didn’t even know illustration existed. At first, I wanted to do fashion illustration because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. I went to London College of Fashion for a year but I didn’t like it, so I dropped out and I ended up going to Camberwell College of Arts to start over.
Neocha: How did you integrate your cultures and surroundings – that of Cantonese and British – into your art?
Man: I created a project on Cantonese colloquialisms at Camberwell. Even though you might not have the cultural context, people could still understand it. I grew up in the UK, but I didn’t come here until I was 13. I obviously didn’t speak English very well and always thought that people considered me as being quite weird since I couldn’t say what I wanted to say to the full extent. I would put words together but the grammar was all wrong. They laughed about it, but then I thought, “Why do I need to speak perfectly? People can understand me anyways, so why can’t I just be myself?” There are no rights and wrongs in language anymore. We invent new words on the internet every day, so why can’t I just have fun with it? That’s when I started to make a lot more work about my culture and that’s when humor made it into my art.
Neocha: How do you decide that “this is my style”?
Man: If all your drawings look similar, you’ll get recognized a lot quicker and easier. It’s the rules of Instagram. If you follow the rules you’ll get there. I try to go against it a bit. I don’t want people to ask me to do the same thing all the time because I find it boring. I want to keep doing new things, to keep myself motivated, and stay interested in art-related things. I actually enjoy the process of physically making something, like baking bread. I suppose that’s why my work always is more tactile and more hands-on. I want to do comics, but I don’t like to explain a lot. I still like things to be in a very abstract way. I feel doing a comics is telling a bit too much. If it’s just a single image, it leaves more to the imagination.
Neocha: 你是如何确认 “对，这就是我想要的风格”的？
Neocha: What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced, and how did you conquer them?
CM: We have this collective called “Day Job” – there are ten of us. The idea was that we wanted to make illustration our day job. When we first started, we all had part-time jobs. I was working in a clothing store and someone else worked in a biscuit factory. Most of us are illustrators now. But at one point, I didn’t have a job. I was just sitting at home and my mom came in, saying “You’re looking for a job? Why don’t you do something?” But I was actually doing something – I was drawing and thinking about my next move. That’s when the idea for the exhibition came to me and I started contacting galleries. After the show, I received more commissions that I really enjoy doing, more relevant to what I’m interested. I think working on personal projects really helps. You never get what you don’t ask for. I learned that from my failures. I used to have low confidence, but it’s common when you first graduate. I thought things like, “I’m still not a full-time illustrator. My friends are doing much better.” But I realized that people don’t approach you not because you’re not good enough. It’s because they haven’t seen you yet.
CM: 我和另外9名艺术家有一个合作项目叫《Day Job》（正职工作），想法是创作有关我们正职工作的插画。毕业后刚开始画画的时候，大家都有在做其他工作来维持生活。我在一家服装店工作，还有人在饼干厂工作。直到2014年，我才辞去最后一份正职工作。现在，我们大多数人都成为插画家了。有一段时间，我没有工作。有一次我宅在家里，我妈妈走了进来，说：“你有在找工作吗？为什么你不去找些事情来做？”而那时候我的确有在做事情——我每天都在画画，心里也知道自己接下来想做什么。就在那时我想到了举办展览然后开始联系一些。展览结束后，越来越多人找我画画，那些是我喜欢画的插画，更符合我的兴趣。我觉得做个人项目很有用，你不去问就永远得不到自己想要的东西。我正是从自己的挫败中学会这一点的。我那时候不是很自信，大部分刚毕业的人应该都会这样。那时我会觉得“我还算不上是一个全职的插画家，我的朋友要优秀得多了。”人们没有来找你并不是因为你不够好，而是因为他们还没看到你。
Neocha: So you’ve now moved back to Hong Kong. How are you inspired by this change in location?
CM: I moved back to Hong Kong on purpose. For years, I’ve only visited and didn’t live here. I never got to do the things that I want to do. I want to see Hong Kong and visit all the streets. I see it very differently now, in an artistic way. I now appreciate things that I didn’t use to when I was younger. Places like Sham Shui Po are developing. But I find that Hong Kong is losing its culture bit by bit. That’s why I made Villain Hitting). It’s something that might disappear in the next few years. For me, it doesn’t matter you’re in England or in China. Where you are is not a limitation. The internet allows you to make things that you like and easily share it with the world.
CM: 我是特意搬回香港生活的。我长大后一直没有在这里生活过，除了偶尔来旅游，我从来没有机会在这里做我想做的事情。我想要真正地看看香港，去走遍所有的街道。搬回来，我才能不断探索这里的艺术场景。现在我眼中的香港很不一样，我会以艺术的角度来看它。当你年轻的时候，你不太会欣赏某些事物。香港有些地方你一般不会自己去的，譬如深水埗，现在这些地方也发展了起来。我发现香港的一些本地文化在消失。这也是为什么我创作了《打小人》（Villain Hitting）这本小册子，这种文化可能会在未来的几年消失。我会尽我所能来保护这些文化。互联网真的可以给你很多机会。如果你做的东西是你喜欢的，人们就会有机会看到它，无论你是身处英国还是在中国，地理位置并不是限制。
Exhibition: Small Thoughts
Exhibition Dates: May 7th, 2017 ~ May 22nd, 2017
B1, No. 6, Lane 72, Section 2, Zhongshan North Road
Zhongshan District, Taipei
Contributor & Photographer: Shanshan Chen