Welcome back to the Artists of Color Interview Series. I'm thrilled to be sharing another interview with a young artist who you should definitely keep your eye on- Malaysia-based illustrator and educator Charis Loke. I first discovered her work on instagram, and was struck with her fascinating characters and unique sense of storytelling. I hope you find her work as inspiring as I do, and that you enjoy reading her interview!
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
My name is Charis Loke. I'm an illustrator and educator based in Malaysia, where I was born and raised before going to the US for college. My work is focused on book and editorial illustrations, but I also do visual journalism and a variety of other projects.
It's important to me that I stay conscious of stereotypes in visual culture, do not blindly replicate imagery, and address topics or depict communities which aren’t widely represented where I can in my commercial and personal work.
2). When did you first fall in love with art, and realize that you wanted to pursue it as a career? Did your parents approve or disapprove?
As a child I loved drawing and reading. My parents read to me as soon as I could sit on their laps. I'd draw/ read at the dinner table, in school, after school, wherever I went. Reading is how I came across Pauline Baynes' spot illustrations in the Narnia books, Diane and Leo Dillon's cover for Sabriel, Tolkien's little watercolour paintings for his stories, John Howe's depictions of Middle Earth. In my mind, art was always entwined with books and stories, which were also how I made sense of the world.
Off I went to college as a science major. But I never stopped thinking about art, so I took a few classes in the illustration department at RISD and realised that people do make a living off drawing pictures. Then I went to Illuxcon in 2011 (postponing a biology test to do so) and met artists who up till then had only been names on a page – Donato Giancola, Eric Fortune, Omar Rayyan, Allen Williams. “This is what I'm going to do,” I decided, “even if it takes me a while to get there.”
I am so fortunate to have parents who support my career and life decisions, although they did have reservations in the beginning. It helped that I had a plan and some savings before going freelance; that assuaged their fears.
3). Are you self-taught, or did you go to art school? How important was this training to becoming a professional artist?
Every experience feeds into what we do as artists; nothing is ever wasted. The way I think is indubitably shaped by all those hours I spent in comparative literature/ animation/ medieval history/ biological design courses, as well as working with teenagers in classrooms when I was a high school teacher.
I have a self-assembled art education. Besides trial and error, I learnt a great deal from books, blogs like Muddy Colors, online tutorials, going to conferences like ICON Manila, and seeking out more experienced illustrators. After I worked a few years and saved up some money, I was able to take an online mentorship at SmArtSchool and attend the IMC. Besides making friends with illustration peers, seeing the level of work that’s produced by professionals is important so I know what to aim for and how to practice when I’m back in my living room/ studio.
I do want to note that some of those resources require significant investment in terms of finance or time. It’s a privilege to be able to afford either, and I wasn’t in a position where I could until recently. But the wonderful thing about the Internet is that there is so much knowledge out there, so many high-quality resources, that you could very well learn a great deal even if you don’t have the means.
4). Your work has such a rich sense of character and story. Your finished illustrations and your sketches from life equally draw me in, and make me want to know more about these people, who they are, and what will happen next. Can you talk about your approach to storytelling, and what draws you to a particular character or scene?
My approach is rooted in research and references. I can happily go down the rabbit hole for days looking up images and historical accounts. Little nuggets of information, quirks from reference images, and things I’ve seen in real life add flavour to the overall illustration and inform the characters. It’s the small details that make each character decidedly non-vanilla, or unique.
If I'm reporting scenes from life, I try to immerse myself in the moment as much as possible, to feel what people around me are feeling. Drawing the 2015 Bersih rallies and the 2018 general elections in Malaysia, I was not a nonpartisan observer; these events impacted me as much as the next person in the street. When the crowd roars in response to a speaker, when they press against police barricades, my heart leaps too. That personal link adds something intangible, something extra to the work.
5). What is a major obstacle that you have faced in pursuit of your art career? How did you overcome this, or is it something that you still struggle with?
Finding local groups who have similar motivations with regards to a career in illustration continues to be a struggle – there aren't many illustrators in Malaysia (and we already tend to be hermit-like in nature). Fortunately, there are folks in online communities with whom I can talk about illustration, get critiques, discuss art business, and share resources. Peer networks and mentors are such critical elements in an art career, I couldn't imagine doing this without all the people who have graciously helped me and who continue to inspire me.
The challenge now is staying up at odd hours (1-4am) just to listen in to webinars or classes, but that’s a small price to pay.
6). Does representation matter in art?
There's the argument that protagonists should be 'vanilla' enough for viewers or players to project themselves onto, and that we can identify with characters regardless of their ethnicity. But who decides what is vanilla, and what is the default?
When Mass Effect: Andromeda came out, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a preset Asian female face in the character creator which actually looked decent. Never mind the flaws in the plot or game play, it was so much fun to race across planets and watch cut-scenes with someone who looked like me. I’d loved the original Mass Effect trilogy – but it was more of a love for the other characters, and for the sense of wonder at exploring space. This time I could love the protagonist too.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
Coming in with a sense of respect and desire to understand, rather than plucking individual elements merely for aesthetic reasons, seems to be vital.
At the same time, perhaps some stories just aren't yours to tell.
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
Oh gosh, there are so many. Almost everyone from the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender (Toph! Lin! Iroh! Zuko!), Prunella Gentleman from Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, Chihiro from Spirited Away. But if I had to pick one it would be Mulan, from the original legend and the Disney animation. The tension between finding your place in the world and filial piety is one that resonates with me a lot.
9). Who is the most underrated creator of color you wish everyone knew about? (Can be an artist, film director, writer, deceased artist, etc.)
From the past: Juan Luna from the Philippines is an incredible, incredible painter - seeing his large paintings, studies, and portraits in Manila last year was a treat.
From the recent past: Lat is a cartoonist who depicts everyday Malaysian life with a keen and empathetic eye. He has a wonderful sense of movement in his brushwork, and his Kampung Boy/ Town Boy books should be essential reading for everyone.
For the future: Sharon Chin is an artist who is as versatile as she is thoughtful and wise. From performance art to linocut illustrations and visual journalism, she continues to be a key voice in the Malaysian art scene.
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
Cultivate your voice and be sure to create, not just consume. You nurture that voice by making things. If you tell stories about the places and communities and issues dear to your heart, whether those are fictional or real, there will be that extra spark in it that draws people to the work. No one else is better equipped to do so than you.
11). Any current projects you can talk about? What is your ultimate dream project that you canʼt wait to work on, or be a part of someday?
My career goal is to illustrate the best progressive science fiction and fantasy stories out there, as well as develop personal work that has its roots in real experiences and issues.
Right now I'm working with some friends on a card game that's based on five-foot-ways (a local architectural feature) in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town, where I live. Check out Kaki Lima on Facebook for updates!
I’ll be expanding my series of Southeast Asian baju (garment) designs for a gallery show at the end of the year. With The Geeky Baju Project, I explore the intersection of popular/ visual culture with traditional clothes as a means of storytelling. Each baju design is a representation of a character or idea from literature, film, or video games. I’m interested in the process of translation, adaptation, and re-imagination of ideas from one context to another...and I also just want to make cool stuff!
Dream projects: to work on a fully illustrated book for an author I admire, and help visualise a film like Black Panther for Southeast Asian culture.
Thank you so much, Charis, for sharing your story and your stunning art! And thank you, readers, for joining us for this interview series. If Charis's answers resonated with you, please comment and share her interview far and wide!
Be sure to follow, support, and share her work through the links below: