One of the new additions to the Circus Posterus artist roster, Shing Yin Khor or Sawdust Bear, has a show opening this weekend at Leanna Lin’s Wonderland, and we(Kathie and Brandt) took the opportunity to throw some questions at her.
We’ve seen her hungry, we’ve seen her drunk, and now we all get to see her talk a lot!
(editor’s note: Shing also edits the Circus Posterus blog; all self deprecating comments are her own. er, this is Shing’s own note. Ugh, third person.)
CP: Please tell us about your educational background and creative journey. Did your parents talk you into getting a real job or were you smart enough at a young age to figure out how to best fund your creative alter ego?
Shing: Well, it’s… diverse. My degrees are in Technical Theatre and English, where I focused on scenic design and medieval literature. Then I went to grad school for scenic design, which I quit halfway through in a blaze of “artistic differences.” I learned how to sculpt, paint, draft, build, weld, mold, cast in theatre; I can fabricate all sorts of weird things, but the hard part was getting things together cohesively enough to have any sort of an artist’s statement. That part came organically, as I started to pursue a varied slate of interests and went through a quarter-life crisis state of trying to figure out who I was. Basically, I just didn’t have anything to say, until I did, and now I won’t shut up.
My parents – they’re very supportive. They just wanted me to be good at something, even though they have never hesitated to tell me when my work sucks. If I had been a lousy artist, I am certain they would have insisted I go into computer engineering. We compromised on the English major, which was an “at least you can teach high school” option. They are both artists too (Mom’s always been, she works with clay and bronze. Dad took up painting and woodworking in retirement). I very clearly get my love of experimenting from them. My mom randomly texts me things like “I built a gas kiln in the backyard today!” Fortunately, they’re a bit more competent and safer than I tend to be; I haven’t gotten a message like “your mom blew up the garden with her gas kiln” yet.
CP: Did the Center for Otherworld Science come to you in a dream or were you in a sweat lodge? For the unintoxicated collectors out there, can you explain this concept?
Shing: The Center for Otherworld Science has been evolving in different forms and into different names since I was…10? When it first started, it was a straight rip off of Brian Froud’s Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book and Wil Hugyen and Rien Poortvliet’s Gnomes (so much of my work still owes a debt to those books, I think). When I was 14, it expanded to being a research institution that investigated mermaids, fairies, gargoyles, other mythical creatures. There were a lot more fantasy tropes mixed in there when it first started out, because y’know…I was a huge nerd. Well, I still am.
I’ve always loved monsters, so it was logical to bring them under the Center for Otherworld Science umbrella when I started sculpting them. They were meant to be props, basically just the work product of the Center. I started filling out the narrative around it a few years ago, with the intention of working it into a novel, but the response to the artwork was more than I had anticipated. Now, I just try and write bits of it when I find time.
Basically, the Center for Otherworld Science is the “heart” of most of my work, and encapsulates most of my themes. I don’t think my work is quite so much about weird little critters, than it is how they got to the point where they are preserved and displayed for all to see. It’s about what humans do to them, especially at the Center – we preserve them, we stuff them, we record possibly inaccurate things about them. So, it might sound like a cute idea, the Center for Otherworld Science, but there’s a lot of well intentioned, but very fallible, human beings behind it all, and they do bad things to these fairly hapless critters. The unseen people of the Center for Otherworld Science are sinister because they’re kind of clueless about the whole new world they’ve stumbled upon – they’re the bumbling backbone of my world. God, humans are assholes!
To see the rest of the awesome interview, click more.
How many of your artworks come to you in dreams? How many after whiskey? Speaking of which, what is your favorite whiskey? Other than lack of consciousness, what else inspires you?
Shing: I don’t really remember my dreams. I sleep very soundly and quickly, it’s one of my hidden talents. I’ve never been able to pull an all-nighter, and I get usually cranky if I’m not in bed by midnight.
I like whiskey, but after too much whiskey, I go to sleep, so it’s the same thing, I guess.
The bottle of whiskey that resides in my studio is Maker’s Mark – it’s good enough. And, it is also cheap enough that I can clean wounds out with it if necessary. I honestly don’t really know if I have a favourite, but I definitely prefer bourbon over scotch.
Anyway, I feel like I’m inspired by three major categories. The stuff that inspires me visually is easy. Invertebrates, the ocean, bad sci-fi movies, fantasy novels, comic books, old museums, that sort of thing. I’ve been really into 18th century scientific illustration lately as well, especially the stuff done before and around the time Linnaeus published his taxonomy guide, when humanity was trying to categorize this brave new world.
The other, that’s maybe more important, is the more cerebral researchy stuff, that I think has made my work a lot stronger and more cohesive once I started diving into it. For instance, right now I’m a bit obsessed about the colonial era, and its effect on indigenous populations. My hometown in Malaysia, Malacca, is a port city, which means it has been colonized by the Dutch, Portuguese and British and is littered with all sorts of post colonial detritus, like really cool forts and the A-Levels. Post colonial culture is fascinating, a mishmash of influences and co-opted aesthetics.
The role of the early museum is especially interesting to me – I mean, you pretty much had rich people(or people sponsored by rich people) travelling the world to plant a flag on “undiscovered” lands, rape the local women, subjugate the local populations into slavery…and also bring beautiful and wondrous things back to their home countries – and that’s how museums evolved out of private cabinets of curiosities. Under the noble veneer of science and exploration, the very existence of a museum holds a legacy of plunder, war and death. It’s not a pretty history, and that is fascinating to me. Anyway, a lot of thoughts about this sort of thing inform my work now, even if it’s just a bit of ugliness and awkwardness lurking under the surface of these quirky little invertebrates on tiny pedestals.
And the third, which is a sort of wishy washy thing, is really just my feelings and moods. Usually, it’s anxiety, which is why so many of my critters always look anxious too.
How does being a full time paralegal effect your work as an artist? And does being an artist make you want to go back to your paralegal work?
Shing: I’m really lucky – I actually quite like my day job, and I’m working in a legal field that I am passionate about(privacy law). I’m not a traditional paralegal; it’s actually some sort of hybrid technical paralegal/researcher/project manager role that got made up for me. The specific job itself doesn’t really have too much of an effect on my art, other than lending me some strong opinions on how our legal system works(the short rant: not great for independent artists, really). Also, getting project management training has probably been the best thing I could have done for my art, for obvious reasons like meeting deadlines and not getting things done at the last minute.
And, it has given me a lot of confidence, I think. There was a period of time where I got to travel a lot and speak and run workshops. It was kind of weird, being really comparatively young and going to all of these places, like Princeton University and Air Force armories and big conferences, in my one cheap H&M suit(and my Doc Martens! I was unwilling to go TOTALLY corporate, and no one said a word.). And having all of these way more experienced people – district attorneys, law enforcement, FBI dudes, CEOs – treat me like a peer and actually care about what I had to say, even if we usually did not agree – that was really cool. Then, I would go back to the art stuff I was doing, and I’d have directors screaming at me like I was nothing and galleries that couldn’t pay me on time. Getting respect and career advancement and a decent paycheck in a completely different field from art really made me open my eyes up to a lot of the bullshit, flakiness and hot air in the art world and made me very unlikely to deal with it just for the sake of getting “known” and selling work.
Mainly though, what my job has given me is freedom. I’m not really cut out for the “starving artist” lifestyle, and I don’t think that is a label to be proud of anyway, because we end up with a society that doesn’t value art because “artists are supposed to be hungry.” I did spend some time as a freelance artist, and I’m glad I chose my early-mid 20s to do it, because I’m quite done living with roommates and depending on flaky clients. I would do “creative work” all day, and come home and feel completely spent and unable to do any of my own work.
Now, I come home and walk straight to my studio in my backyard – my head is still in “work mode” and I can get a lot of work done just working one or two hours a day. I’ve produced far more work that I’m proud of with a day job than without. I can fund a run of resin casts myself. I can eat sushi or steak for dinner when I go to conventions. And it has given me the power of “no”. I can say no to commissions I don’t want to do. I don’t feel compelled to participate in shows with subject matter that doesn’t excite me. I don’t mean to sound like such a crank, but y’know, it’s kinda nice.
I’d love to do art full time again someday, I really do! I plan to! But when I do, I’m going in with a damn good business plan that’s likely to succeed, not one based on “well, if I just sculpt more, good things will happen, right? Right?” I’m not delusional enough to think that just talent and hard work gets you by, at least not when you have a Los Angeles mortgage and a cat with vet bills.
Which of your characters do you feel best represents you and why? If you found yourself having to dispose of a body, which of your creatures would be most helpful?
Shing: None of them, really. I am the asshole researcher scientist type off screen that dips them in formaldehyde and prepares them for public display.
I would choose the Desecrated Gravebeasts to help me dispose of a body; they eat any organic matter.
Why do you call your creatures Larms? Are all of the creatures in your world Larms?
Shing: Oh boy. That one is actually a really bad pun. My husband and I both work a lot, so a lot of the time we actually get to hang out and talk to each other, we’re already in bed and sleep-addled. So, anyway, one night we came up with this creature that would always look scared. And it would be a Larm. Get it. A Larm? Alarm. Oh god, this is awful. Anyway, I sculpted it that week, and getting it cast in resin was a bit of an impulse, but it became my first resin editioned work.
Just the guys that look like turtles are Larms(they have shells, so they can hide) – there are also Fattybugs, and Scaleybugs, and a whole lot of other..bugs and jellies and the such. I’ve mostly laid off the puns, but I might be naming something a Dorbal soon. As in, that is a Dorbal(say it out loud). It’s going to be really cute.
Other than telling them not to copy you, how do you recommend new artists find their own unique style?
Shing: Yeah, don’t look at people that are still alive for inspiration. Plunder the corpses of the dead. Steal from a hundred artists, not a handful. Brush up on your art history. Learn your trade, learn your craft. If you can already paint like Rembrandt, you probably don’t have all that much to worry about.
Really though, be inspired by things that are not other artists. You have to be passionate about something to make art – if the only thing that inspires you is “other artists,” then you’re probably going to suck. Try and live an interesting life, and let your experiences form your voice.
Sometimes though, you’re just working from a pool of common, shared influences with other artists, and it’s difficult to bury some of them(the influences, not your peers. don’t bury your peers.). It’s hard to end up making work that’s a direct copy of another artist if you are being even remotely self aware. You’re probably still going to fuck up somewhere, though. We aren’t creating work in a vacuum. Don’t be a dickbag, admit when you’re wrong, and have some humility, and it’ll probably be okay.
It’s also worth taking the time to recognize the artists that you share influences with and the ones you get compared to most often and actively strive to differentiate your work from theirs. I’ve recently implemented this thing in my personal process called the Ryniak-Levings Filter, obviously named after Chris, and Leslie, my friend/collaborator that I’m doing the upcoming “Dubious Beasts” show with. Pretty much, every time I sketch something that I think going to be really cool, I have to go and google their past work to make sure they haven’t done it already – just in case. However, now my internet search history contains shit like “chris ryniak ruffled pink butthole” which will be awkwardly misinterpreted if my internet records are ever subpoenaed.
Leslie and I especially have a lot in common, influence-wise, we’re both pretty nerdy, live in LA, about the same age, museum obsessed, monster loving, consume similar media, we had two of the only sculpted webcomics on the internet(hers was first), we’re drawn to bright palettes, and so on. It makes her an amazing and really fun person to do a show with, but we do end up working and negotiating around each other when we work on stuff. We agreed on a “museum” theme for our upcoming show, which is a really big undercurrent in both our works, so we each had to pick and choose the elements that are “ours” and really hammer out where our work diverges. Like, she’s got all the glass terrarium boxes and domes, but I get all the brass label holders and wood shadow boxes(which I build from scratch), at least for this show. Her work is more charming, mine’s more off balance. She sculpts distinct feet, I prefer tentacles. I gravitate towards invertebrates, she prefers mammals, we both like amphibians. We talk; it works out.
We’ve noticed you starting to explore different types of sculpting media; is there a particular set of fumes you prefer to expose yourself to in order to create new characters? Other than fumes is there a driving force behind what you choose to sculpt with? I hear rumors of bronze casting?
Shing: I’m just sort of ADD with making things. I always have several things going at the same time; lots of projects in varying stages of completion. I’ve always had a jack-of-all-trades skillset, and I was upset about that for a long time because I wanted to be really, really good at SOMETHING, but now I’ve come to terms with it. Also, every year, I like to try something out of my comfort zone to challenge myself. I’ve done circus classes(static trapeze and rope…it was thoroughly embarrassing) and blacksmithing the past couple years, and now I’m taking a ceramic wheel throwing class. I’m comfortable with clay, but not with symmetry and rapidly spinning objects, so there’s that.
I really like working with Magic Sculpt, which is my primary sculpting medium now – it forces me to not overwork things. Unfortunately, I have skin as sensitive as a pretty princess’s taint, so I’m constantly trying to find less caustic alternatives. I’ve been working with Monster Clay and wax as well, but I have not developed an enduring love for them.
I’m collaborating with my mother on a series of bronze works. A lot of the organic shapes I’m drawn to in my work are very similar to what she likes to work with as well. We’ve been trading wax sculpts back and forth, as well as making bronze versions of my resin sculptures. I’m not entirely sure where exactly that is going, but I think we’re going to try and amass a bronze-centered body of work and try to do a collaboration show together.
“Sawdust Bear” can have so many possible meanings—how did you earn that nickname?
Shing: It was a name bestowed upon me when I was working in a scene shop during my theatre days. I had a knit hat with bear ears that I wore to keep my hair out of my face, and it would regularly get covered in sawdust. One of the shop guys started calling me “Sawdust Bear,” which was a nicer name than what I tended to call him. It implied that I was the sort of scrappy, tomboy, carpenter Care Bear, and I liked the idea of using a name given to me, rather than making one myself. So, I guess I earned it after a year of TA-ing/yelling at freshmen Stagecraft students. It reminds me of how lucky I was that I never caught the hat’s tassels in the table saw.
Are there any other projects or shows for the rest of 2013/’14 that you can share with us?
Shing: I plan on really refining my process this year, and trying to get to a point where I’m much more productive. Sculpture wise, I plan on releasing a few new editions of the Fattybug – I have about a hundred blank casts of them, so I have to do something with them now. I’ll probably do a few small editions, I get bored painting things the same way, so my edition sizes are all 10 or smaller. 2013 will probably be the Year of the Fattybug. I’m toying around with the idea of moving them to vinyl in 2014.
Convention/show wise, I’m doing SDCC and DesignerCon again this year(and probably all years to come), although SDCC usually focuses a bit more on my comics work. I also have a small solo show(my first) in September at a really amazing gallery in Albuquerque, you might have heard of it. It’s gonna be called “a nervous harbour” and is inspired by port cities, marine invertebrates and anxiety. Leslie and I are also planning Dubious Beasts II for 2014 – I don’t want to drop too many details about that, but it will likely be in the Pacific Northwest.
I’m hoping to scrape some time together to finally fabricate something bigger too – maybe a bug large enough to cuddle with(for instance, a three foot tall bug would probably be a good sized little spoon).
Shing can also be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, where she talks a little bit less.