Thursday, 2 August 2012

Wayward Boey Comes Home (For a Short While)

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 02 August 2012

Months ago, a "local cartoonist" pitched his book of illustrated childhood stories in an e-mail. Of the samples he'd attached, the one about his grandma's sundry shop and the toys sold there stood out.

Long before the Internet and the smartphone, my childhood highlights included the sundry shop and the toys. The image made me sorry for all the times I pestered my dad for those cheap trinkets.

Though others have compared him to Lat, I'm loathe to draw any comparisons to the venerable cartoonist. However, I don't mind somebody coming close to knocking Dr M off the best-seller lists.

Since its debut in May this year, When I Was A Kid by Boey Cheeming has done well at local bookstores. The Singapore-born Johore artist turned out to be one of those Malaysian talents hidden overseas.

Boey enrolled at the Academy of Art University (AAU) in San Francisco where he took up Advertising but switched to Computer Animation. He eventually landed a job in Blizzard Entertainment, maker of such sleep-robbing and marriage-straining diversions as World of Warcraft, Diablo II, and Diablo III.

The art of cupping
Abroad, Boey's also more known for the more complicated designs on his hand-drawn styrofoam cups. He inks each cup straightaway; if he makes a mistake, he has to start over with a new one. Each design could take him a few hours to a few months to complete, depending on the complexity and the number of tries.

Boey Cheeming, photo by Matt Mitchell

Cups with more complicated designs can cost as much as four figures, but Boey feels they're worth it, considering the time and effort he spends on them. "These are originals; some artist sell prints for hundreds."

And forget about drafting the designs with pencils. "You can't use pencils on foam cups," says Boey. "The soft leads, 6Bs and up will make the surface "waterproof", making it hard for the [Sharpie's ink] to stick. And [soft leads] smudge easy when you try to erase. Erasing also charges up the foam cups (with static), which attracts lint easy, and when lint gets caught on the Sharpies, I have a whole new set of issues. Bleeding is one (the ink, that is). Leads like 2Bs are too hard, and will dig into the cups."

Nevertheless, he seems okay with what he calls his "first-stroke-is-your-last-stroke approach". "It makes things far more challenging," he explains, "and it makes you think and work on composing things in your head. That challenge is somewhat addictive and I think that is one of the draws of the cups that people don't see initially, but are surprised by later on."

He has begun venturing into paper cups, on which he can pencil, but it takes almost just as long to sketch a design. "The good thing with pencils though, is that it is forgiving, but that's about the only pro I know."

Drawing a bright future
Besides promoting his book, Boey's back in town to help promote art in Malaysia. He once wrote to Dr M - who has yet to reply - about promoting an "important", yet "underrated" subject which he believes drives the development of technology. "Everything in Star Wars has become a reality," he wrote, quoting his lecturer, "the lightsabers, lasers ... holograms..."

"I Am The One Who Knocks" by Boey Cheeming

From the stream of creative and technological output from Japan, one is convinced of this view. In fact, Boey also looks east in this regard, like Dr M; Boey's influences include the Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter and printmaker Hokusai Katsushika (1760–1849).

Will Malaysia be a creative and technological powerhouse like Japan? Some may be sceptical, especially during these trying times, But Boey remain optimistic. "We have completely capable, intelligent individuals in our country," he says, "but we need a vision, and artists [can] provide it."

He speaks a bit more about his art, book and upcoming book tour below, and lets us in on his plans for the immediate future.

Your art was once described as "smacking mundane in the face" (which would make a great title). Is that part of what you set out to do? Even your incredibly simple journal entries, some of which convey lots with so little detail, appear to subscribe to this. Is that also one reason why you decided to make a book out of your childhood stories? Because you felt that something in them would click with readers?
The journal really started off because I went through a breakup after 8.5 years. She said things about me that were harsh, but held truth, and I wanted to document my day to day, so that when I look back many years from now, I would perhaps see if I changed for the better.

I didn't want a wordy blog. I wanted something that was easy to read and had a picture to accompany it. I thought that combo was necessary, because there are things I cannot express with pictures, and feelings I cannot express with words. I also wanted something that, whether read or not, won't change a thing (hence my handle "boyobsolete").

So the blog started off with a humble group of readers, about 20 per day. That number grew to a couple of hundred when my art on styrofoam cups went viral. Readers started to tell me that they were living vicariously through my mundane day to day.

It was insane to think that people cared about some stranger's life. I guess that's why there are so many crappy reality shows still around. So I thought, well if they like this stuff, they will most likely like stories about my childhood.

I notice that you don't Photoshop away the errors in some of your journal entries. How much of this is in line with your principle of "try to get it right the first time" that you also apply to your art?
I leave the cross-outs in, because it made it feel much more personal. I also didn't want to draw frames around each panel, because that would make it a comic, and a lot less "real". It's my journal. I cross things out. It can be messy. I don't want frames because I like to think outside boxes.

Wouldn't it be easier to create a template or a draft using pencil before inking each entry?
It won't be. If it was, I would've done it. I'm not lazy though, don't get me wrong. But there are things I just want done, ASAP. And all this drafting, inking stuff, that takes up way too much time and planning.

"...this book would be an insight to growing up in Asia, a reminder of their own childhood and their relationship with the people and the pets they grew up with." Well, "growing up in Asia" thirty-something years ago is different from what it is today, isn't it? What do you think that meant back then? What about now? How much have things changed?
I can't really compare it to how it's like growing up now, because I guess I'm no longer eight. But from my observation, kids don't run around, chase, play outdoors as much nowadays. I know this because the playground near where I live is now dilapidated, and overgrown with weed. The swings are unkept and rusty.

The last time I saw any kid around that area was maybe eight years ago. It makes me sad. That was where I hung out, and waited on my BMX for my neighbours Dennis and Henry to come out to play. We played there so much it was OUR territory. I didn't have a cellphone till I was 28, and when I was a kid, I had to use coins in a public phone to call my mom, if I wanted to meet her somewhere after school.

"Katsuro" by Boey Cheeming

When I Was a Kid began as a Kickstarter project. How did you go about getting it printed and distributed here in Malaysia?
I did it all myself. I went shopping for distributors forever, but no one gave me a shot. So I said, "Screw it, I'll print this myself." That's when I used Kickstarter.

But even when I was done putting the book together, and I took it around to publishers, they liked it, but not enough to want to publish it. They suggested I do the printing, and they will distribute. Meanwhile, I was also writing to all the book reviewers in Malaysia, and at the same time, I wrote a similar letter to MPH as well. I still had to be the publisher then, and MPH said they would distribute. The reason I went with MPH is because I knew about the reach. I grew up seeing them all over Singapore and Malaysia.

On my end, I knew I had something good (in the time of writing, less so after four years), because I went around Singapore and Malaysia, and I read a lot of local comics out there, and nothing really struck me as, "this is going to be hard to beat".

But what I feared was my choice of language in it. Having worked and lived in US for so long, I've adapted myself to the humour there and the freedom of speech attitude. I chose not to censor myself too much though, because I think I wanted it to be honest. Really really honest.

From your journal, I take it that your family is cool about the book, even though your mom didn't like you "talking rubbish" about her. Now that it's a best-seller, how do they feel?
My mom never meant it in a bad way. Throughout the entire book writing, I kept her in the loop of what's going in. She loved it. She would call me all the time, and it would be 15 seconds of just giggling on the phone, before even saying hello.

When can we expect a second volume of When I Was a Kid? Are there any plans to turn your journals into a book?
I've been working on Book Two, and I have been better at it, now that I've got experience from working on Book One. It should be less painful a process. If Book One was plate of excellent nasi lemak, Book 2 is straight-up sex. But, of course, that's completely subjective.

Journal-wise, it's been a plan to turn them into books since four years ago. I just never got around to it. I've been busy handling everything myself so far: the daily blogs, the cups, the book, setting up gallery shows and marketing my art, all while I was working a full-time job as a lead animator at Blizzard.

I think I read somewhere that you quit your day job (as an animator) to focus on your art and book. Isn't that kind of risky? Do you have a backup plan?
I don't. When you think about it, the only thing [risk] does is hold you back. With everything, there is a risk. You can get coffee on your way to work, spill it on your lap while driving and get into a tragic car accident.

It can be argued that people like simpler things, these days: short blog entries and articles, etc. You said you don't like reading long blog entries - kind of ironic, given the time you typically spend on a single cup art.
I see the cup and the blog as two different things. The cups, until now, are what brings me traffic and money. The blog is free. With the blog, I focus on storytelling, and I want to get the message across as efficiently as I can. The cups showcase my actual drawing ability. Plus, reading bores me. ...That's not to say I don't read. I love reading stuff, like National Geographic; just not stories, like Twilight.

Do you think this attention deficit affects artists/writers, especially those who prefer to craft detailed pieces? Do audiences have to know about what goes on behind the scenes at an artist's studio to better appreciate the final results?
Yes, with the cups especially. People look at the cups and think two things: "It's disposable, why do I want it?" and "It's how much again?"

Given the time I spend on [each cup], some up to three months because there is no initial sketching involved and what you see is the first and final stroke, US$1,400 for a cup suddenly seems too little, if you put yourself in my shoes.

I shoot videos to help people understand that when something seems easy, most of the time, it isn't. I've seen circus acts where people fly through the air, spin, and land on an elephant that's tip-toeing over molten lava, without breaking a sweat. Seems easy too. But there's a reason they say, "Please don't try this at home."

Any idea what we can expect from your book tour?
There will be talks about how I got to where I am, and the importance of following your dreams. I followed mine, knowing that there would be a chance I won't make much. But when you're passionate about something, you will work on it, and it will never seem like a chore. And when you are passionate about it, you will be good at it, and someone will take notice.

Will there be workshops, demos, motivational speeches, etc?
Yep, yep and yep.

What's the story behind the horse head? Will it be making a show here?
For my 34th birthday, I wanted something that I always wanted, but is completely useless.

Since I was born in the Year of the Horse, I thought, "why not?" Also, when I was a kid, I played a lot of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and my character's name was also "Pegasus".

"Pegasus" should be a big hit at the Popular Bookfest (18-26 August 2012). I hear it is very noisy there, so I plan to get attention visually.

What's next after your tour, besides the book(s) you'll be working on?
I have a secret project I am working on that requires me to go back to the US. I'm designing a bicycle, and it will be super badass. I am looking for investors and partners now. If the bike project doesn't take off, I WILL have the coolest bicycle, in California.

Meet Boey Cheeming at the following venues: MPH, 1 Utama Shopping Centre (Saturday 11 August, 2.00 - 3.00pm); Popular BookFest, KL Convention Centre (Saturday 18 August, 6.00 - 6.45pm and Tuesday 21 August, 5.00 - 5.45pm); Kinokuniya, KLCC (Sunday 26 August, 3.00 - 4.00pm); Borders, The Curve (Saturday 08 September, 3.00 - 4.00pm); Popular, IPC Shopping Centre (Sunday 09 September, 2.00 - 3.00pm); and MPH, Johor Bahru City Square (Saturday 15 September, 3.00 - 4.00pm).

Information on his book can be found here and here.


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