As a child, Tiffany Choong’s ambition was to be a “hippie traveller”.
“I didn’t know at that time that it wasn’t considered a career,” recalls Choong with a laugh. “I saw all these backpackers arriving in Penang, and I wanted to do the same thing – travel the world!”
Choong may be all grown-up now, but her free-spirited persona and wanderlust cravings remain unabated. She describes being a bohemian artist as such: “Basically, it’s a lifestyle to be able to draw and paint authentically and also be able to travel.”
The 40-something beauty is quick to add: “However, the bohemian part is proving to be an ideology; in reality, I have to treat art as a business.”
Thus, her recently-concluded exhibition – her very first as a solo artist – that was held at G Art Gallery in G Hotel, Penang. Titled Treasures Of A Straits Chinese, it featured 30 paintings inspired by Choong’s Peranakan ancestry; more than half of the collection were sold within the first week.
Although Choong has participated in various group exhibitions such as Chairity (organised by National Cancer Society at The Edge Gallery, Kuala Lumpur in 2014), Femmes Plurielles (by Alliance Francaise at The Star Pitt, Penang in 2015) and 8 (all-women exhibition at China House Gallery in 2017), she never felt ready to embark on her own.
“When G Hotel approached me in July last year, I felt the timing was right,” explains Choong, a self-taught artist. “I wanted my first solo showcase to be in Penang as I was born here. I didn’t want to be a Penang-based artist and make my debut in a different city.”
It turned out to be a great learning experience. “I had to do everything by myself – from sending out invites for the opening night to hanging up the paintings.”
Most of the works were painted in gold and black, using acrylic and oil on canvas. They revolve around elements of nature, including flowers and insects. From the crest feathers of the cockatoo in the Garden Of Eden to the dragonfly’s flight in Flutter Your Wings And Fly, the pieces are exquisitely detailed.
“I spent six months on the collection, working solidly but not manically … there was a lot of research involved. Even selecting the gold paint was an experiment as I had to search everywhere for the brightest gold I could find.”
According to Choong, her art has its roots in the Peranakan culture. Somewhere during the process of creating this collection, it dawned on her that she is the legacy of her ancestors.
“It brought back memories of my childhood, of being surrounded by black-and-gold furnishings and colourful porcelain vases,” says Choong, who is the third of four siblings; she is the only girl.
“I wanted to bring this heritage back which many people may have forgotten. In my imagination, if the Peranakan culture evolves, what will the next phase look like?”
She did inject a couple of modern elements here and there; one of her most favourite paintings (You Make My Heart Smile) feature a pair of flamingos.
“The flamingo – I call her Felicity – is ever present in my art works. She represents joy and happiness,” enthuses Choong.
As opposed to some exhibitions where the artist only puts the name and the price next to the artwork, Choong shared the inspiration behind every piece. Next to each painting, she had an accompanying writeup to explain its driving force.
On the most memorable feedback she received, Choong replies: “As I was closing up the exhibition, I noticed a Malay security guard passing through the gallery. He stopped and studied a butterfly painting and its accompanying write-up.
“As he was walking away, I introduced myself as the artist and asked why he was drawn to that particular piece. Did the butterfly represent a similar meaning in his culture? He nodded and said yes. Some believe the butterfly represents a departed loved one.
“I was moved by that encounter because it’s precisely what I want to do with my art. I want to form a connection with people from all walks of life. Being able to touch people is the ultimate success for an artist,” muses Choong, who studied French and interior design at University College London.
Away from art, her passions include travelling and sports. “I am a bit of a sponge, I like a lot of things. By travelling, I meet people from different cultures and backgrounds which broadens the mind. And if I am in Penang, I hike up Penang Hill every other day.”
What’s her advice to aspiring artists?
“Know the reality of the industry, and the hard work that goes into it. One must also be able to stand the course of time, as you might not be making money for the first few years.”
A main challenge faced as an artist, says Choong, is in making ends meet.
“Also, making people realise that just because you’re a freelancer, it doesn’t mean your work is free. People don’t realise that art materials are expensive!”
Asked about her proudest accomplishment, Choong replies without hesitation: “Managing to complete over 1,000 sketches!”
At this point, she draws out her Moleskin journals – her trusted travelling companion – which comprise various whimsical sketches.
“My sketches capture what I feel and see, be it from my travels or sitting still. The process is in itself a journey, from sight to mind to heart to paper.”
Last year, her mentor Mariana Musa (illustrator behind www.floatinglemons.com) challenged Choong to complete 1,000 sketches – one sketch per day.
“It was the best advice ever! Whenever I had a mental block, she suggested that I could just sketch whatever was in front of me; it could be a glass of water or one’s mobile phone.”
That routine instilled discipline in Choong, as well as ultimately giving her the confidence to stage Treasures Of A Straits Chinese.
“I posted my sketches daily on social media, and many people were in turn inspired to start their own creative journey,” concludes Choong, who has a strong following on Instagram (@Bulanlifestyle_art) as well as her blog (www.BulanLifestyle.com).