(2016 December) We are normal because we knew all about our abnormalities. – Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
Maybe we are all a bit abnormal in some ways, Belle Chow (JCCAC Unit L2-11 MARSMARY) is just the same; she is peculiar in her own way. And because of that, her illustrations are bold in colour, with great contrasts and in fine neat lines. The characters in her illustrations are very interesting with a distinctive and appealing personality that make people smile. Her unique style makes her work easily recognisable and is adored by fans. She embraces her little quirks, “I do not feel quite an Earthling sometimes - I am not eloquent, move slowly and have this unusual birthmark (she flicked her hair to reveal the extra tragus) – you see, I even have funny ears like Mr. Spock from Star Treks! So I am quite used to my friends teasing me about being an alien from Mars.”
M: Belle Chow (MARSMARY)
J: So, “Mars” means Mars the planet, but what about “Mary”?
M: I was at a cross road in my life when I was known as Mary to some people. Before that, I have never even thought of working in arts, or for that matter having any plans at all about the future. I was not particularly good with my studies at school and my exam results were rather average. After scraping through Form 5, I started making a living waitressing at a restaurant in Wan Chai. I liked to while away the few hours break between shifts to explore the galleries in that area, and discovered to my surprise that I really enjoyed art. I also realised that waitressing was not my career of choice. So I decided to further my studies and enrolled in a design course at the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (IVE).
At one of the restaurants that I waitressed part-time to support myself, my colleagues used to call me Mary – an ordinary name they gave me just for sake of convenience. Even though some years later I finally chose a name for myself – Belle, Mary is a name which I fondly remember as the symbol of a watershed phase in my life.
J: So “MARSMARY” is a symbol of your life, hopes and dreams. After graduating from IVE, you furthered your studies at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts (AVA), right?
M: Before studying at IVE, I had no experience in arts and design. But thankfully, somehow learning those skills and knowledge was not a struggle and came quite naturally to me - for once in my life I have found direction and purpose. After completing the three year course at IVE, I applied for and directly proceeded to Year 2 of the AVA degree programme in visual arts. I took an elective in illustrations, which probably sowed the seed for my creation and stylistic evolution of “MARSMARY”.
I worked as an in-house graphic designer after graduating from AVA, and first presented products featuring “MARSMARY” illustrations about three months later at a handicraft fair. “MARSMARY” is an expression of my anglophile yearnings – I dream of the opportunity to experience life and continue my studies in the United Kingdom (UK).
J: First noticed through products merchandised in handicraft fairs, your illustrations were featured in a solo exhibition Romance on the Road last year. This year you already had collaborations with Standard Chartered Arts in the Park Mardi Gras 2016 and MOViE MOViE Festival LIFE IS ART 2016, and will follow with an intimate exhibition The Hundred Faces during JCCAC Festival 2016 this month. Apparently you have become quite a seasoned artist within a rather short time! Everybody seems to love your fond caricatures of people, whether famous ones or just ordinary folks, displaying unmistakable humour, positive energy, romance and sentimental nostalgia.
M: I think that a large part of the satisfaction I gain from drawing people comes by association with the happiness that those people derive from my work. No matter whether it is through the illustrated totes I sell at handicraft fairs, illustrating people in my studio, or designing photo booth frames for wedding banquets, I feel really good when I see my work bring a smile on people’s faces.
One of my most memorable experiences was the request from an elderly married couple. They do something special on each of their wedding anniversaries and wanted me to draw them to commemorate their 44th one. I am so happy to know that my work for them marks a beautiful moment in their lives and will always bring them fond memories.
J: That is a very touching story! We heard your graduation artwork is about people as well?
M: Yes, I have always wanted to create works to connect people by exploring the potential of the applied arts. Somehow I have a soft spot for the elderly and so came up with a project which involved collecting their grey hair. There is certain honesty in grey hair, no matter what shade of grey - be it an intense grey, a brownish shade or silver grey. There is no mistaking that it represents advanced age.
To effectively collect locks of grey hair without causing unnecessary alarm (it is creepy to just ask people for it!), I learnt to cut hair before setting up stall at a housing estate to offer my free service for the elderly. I collected 90 locks of hair from 90 individuals. For my graduation artwork, I framed up each lock and wrote a few reflective words about its owner.
What I collected was more than just locks of grey hair. Some people were apparently quite lonely and appeared so happy just to find a caring person to hold a conversation with. I guess there is an element of intimacy and trust in allowing someone to cut your hair, and it encourages people to talk and share more personal things. While some people are naturally more extroverted and willing to talk than others, in general I did find that elderly people who still care about grooming and their appearances (e.g. have their hair dyed regularly) tend to be more open and communicative.
J: Anybody who is familiar with your work or with you personally will know that you are an unapologetic anglophile. Why this fascination with all things about the UK?
M: Blame it on Harry Potter! I did not have a privileged upbringing and as a child, Hong Kong and my hometown in China made up my whole world. It was as if a spell was cast on me the first time I saw the UK as the setting of a Harry Potter film being rerun on television, and my fascination with that country only grew with the years. During my first year at university, I finally managed to save up enough money for a two-week visit, starting in London and including many other places. Ever since, my dream is to have a longer stay to experience life and further my studies there.
J: So how are you going about to find the financial means to realise your dream? Can your current work as an artist in Hong Kong support this dream of yours?
M: I teach drawing and do freelance work. I am happy that some clients invite me to illustrate for them or to represent certain concepts in “MARSMARY” style.
I am not actually a very business minded or money focused kind of person. My illustrations at the handicraft fair were on a “name your price” basis and that is my way of hoping to reconnect people through shared feelings and empathy. I want to rediscover humanity through my illustrations and not make the whole exchange too pecuniary. I value the experience of making other people and myself smile and feel happy - the money is actually a bi-product.
J: So, how is your plan going?
M: I set my mind on applying for a master degree, but now think that short courses sound good too. I have frugally saved up 80% of the funds that I shall need, so now it is just a matter of deciding the right time for action. I am planning to go either next year or the year after. It has always been my dream to have an authentic living experience in the UK, and am chuffed that every day I am getting one step closer to realising it.
JCCAC Festival 2016
《The Hundred Faces》
Date: 26 / 11 - 31 / 12 / 2016
Time: 10:00 - 22:00
Venue: JCCAC L5 Blue Wall
Please to download《JCCAC PROGRAMMES》(2016 Dec issue)