Malaysian artist Michelle Yap recently sold out her show in Brooklyn, leading me to wanting to know more about her.
More of than not, no matter how talented they are, artists in Malaysia lead a double life – they work full-time at a day job and spend the rest of their hours making their imaginative passion come to life. Such is the case of abstract artist Michelle Yap, who unbeknownst to many recently became not only the first Malaysian artist but the first artist ever to have a sold out exhibition at The Other Art Fair presented by Saatchi Art.
“I didn’t expect to sell out all. I went there because I was invited by Rebecca Wilson, the Chief Curator to exhibit my pieces. I was lucky to be chosen as one the 10 Must See Artists among 130 artists who took part in the fair,” she says laughingly.
Looking at Michelle’s wonderful track record now, I was doubtful as to how big of a role luck played in the scheme of things. After all, it was she who took the effort to put her art up for sale on the Saatchi Art online art gallery about 3 three years ago. Besides, surely it’s her own talent that made Rebecca take notice of her, and subsequently promote the coy artist’s works on Saatchi Art’s pages.
However, Michelle is quick to admit that her success would not have been possible had her artworks not caught Rebecca’s eyes.
“There are hundreds of thousands of paintings on the website and it would not be possible to sell if Saatchi does not promote your art. Rebecca noticed my paintings from early on and the team began promoting them. That’s the only way to stand out on the site, by promotion,” she says.
I guess luck does play a part after all, then. Perhaps that is the case with her art career, but when it comes to her full-time occupation, it’s all about hard work. Michelle works as the Director of Marketing in Metrics Global, an ID firm specialised in designing the best show galleries for the leading developers in Malaysia. In fact, she happens to be the firm’s founder as well.
“After graduating from Central Saint Martins, the University of the Arts London with a Degree in Design, I came back in 1998, smack in the middle of the Asian economic crisis. So I thought, instead of working for someone else and still earn very little, why not start something on my own?” she recounts.
When Michelle first started her own business with her sister back in the day, they were doing everything, from marketing materials to advertisement shootings day and night. After a while, the strenuous schedule began to take a toll on the sisters, and soon enough they found more stable working hours with the property industry.
“In the beginning when we decided to focus on property, we only had 2 to 3 companies as clients. Plus, we didn’t know anything about property. So we kept asking and kept learning. Thankfully our clients were still small back then so they taught us many things and eventually we grew together,” reminisces Michelle.
Some of these clients that grew with Michelle include Hatten Group and LBS Bina Group. Over time, the artist in her couldn’t be contained and she began incorporating her artwork in the ID of her trusted clients. She even gifted her paintings to those close to her. Thanks to the warm reception that she got every time someone received her art, she finally decided to do it commercially, bringing us back full circle to how she ended up selling out at Saatchi Art.
Michelle’s colourful career as an artist so far, however, stands in stark contrast against her own paintings. She is well-known for her strict use of colours, limiting them to a maximum of two hues per painting. Initially, she was painting only one colour per canvas, alternating between two of her most favourite colours: blue and red.
“I am very much inspired by the chaos around me. Running a big company is not easy and I’m under stress every day. Painting serves as a form of stress-relief for me. I use blue to express my inner thoughts while red refers to what I express outwardly to people. Once in a while I also use other colours, based on what I think about the person who inspires the work,” explains Michelle. Her collectors and fans respond to the corporate struggles that are depicted in Michelle’s brushstrokes, most of them being entrepreneurs themselves.
Due to her use of wide brushstrokes in her artworks, Michelle has since been categorised as an Oriental art painter and she does not have any qualm with that. In fact, she also derives inspiration from the Orient, even catching the attention of the Mayor of Xi’an, through her collection of paintings about the Terracotta Warriors reimagined in the 21st century
“It was a proud moment when the Mayor of Xi’an invited me to hold a showcase of my paintings in the city. Besides, I love being in China because the art scene there is amazing. There are also a lot of collectors there who are always interested in my art,” she shares.
Fans of Michelle’s work are not only limited to China either. As apparent from her sold-out show, she has a large following in the US; fans who recently came to The Other Art Fair just meet her in person. From the United States to Dubai and China, Michelle Yap is making a mark with her brush. She might be doing it with polymer clay soon too, as I did manage to see some of her amazing claywork of Terracota Warriors.
Nonetheless, it is quite unfortunate that the talented artist is not widely renowned in her home country.
“That’s okay,” she says. “Now that my children are bigger, I’m ready. I know my style of art is different from the local artists but I believe when the time is right, I’ll make it.”
Are you fond of local artists? Check out fellow Malaysian artist Hoe Say Poh, who draws inspiration from the nature around him in Janda Baik.
*All images courtesy of Michelle unless stated otherwise.
**Featured image by UPPRE.
***This post has been edited for clarity and brevity.