Her workspace, a desk beside her bed, is filled with an assortment of carving, moulding and painting tools. These brushes, paint tubes, tweezers and cutters are what miniature artist Lim Pui Wan uses to create tiny masterpieces.
Her latest project is a kitchen 12 times smaller than the original, complete with worn-out walls, a wooden cupboard, a countertop, “Peranakan” tiles and an old rice cooker.
She dabs some glue on the edges of a metal canopy and attaches it to one of the walls. It’s an art form she’s been perfecting for the last 10 years: taking real-life objects, and turning them into miniatures. She makes a living by selling some of her pieces online.
But this particular creation is not for sale, Lim says. The kitchen was inspired by her grandmother, a woman in her 90s living in Mantin, Negri Sembilan. Lim says she doesn’t have a lot of memories of her grandmother, but the few that she has are of her cooking for the family. “That’s why, for me, the kitchen is the whole picture of her.”
While some people may take pictures and others write diaries, Lim, 24, chooses to preserve life’s sentimental moments in the form of miniatures. Memories make good miniatures, she says, “because miniatures will never fade”.
It all started when Lim was 14, with a book on miniatures that her elder sister had bought from Taiwan. She would keep the book by her bedside table so “she could read it every day”.
Then came the long hours at Internet cafes, looking at tutorials, multiple part-time jobs to enable her to buy materials and late nights moulding clay, sorting out colours, chiselling wood and bending metal to create a piece.
Her first miniature was a lollipop. By the time she was in university, Lim had won first place in a local dollhouse competition and fourth in a Taiwanese contest. She knew this was going to be her career.
But there was one problem. “No one would support me when I wanted to drop out of my degree to make miniatures,” Lim says as she wipes away tears. “Even my mother didn’t support my decision.”
One of five siblings, Lim was the only one to receive a full scholarship to pursue a mechanical engineering degree in Tunku Abdul Rahman University College.
And her mother, Wong Paw Ming, was not willing to see Lim give it up for a strange job that didn’t seem to hold much promise. “She thought a degree would help me secure a job with a stable salary,” says Lim.
Other family members and some of her friends also felt the same way. Against such opposition, Lim decided to finish her degree and accept it as a back-up plan if a career as a miniature artist failed.
After three years, she was finally free to choose her path. “I was really happy when I graduated. I did not regret my decision to finish my degree,” Lim says. “Only when you’ve done something that you dislike do you realise what you’re truly passionate about.”
Since her graduation in 2016, Lim has been dedicating all her time to making miniatures. Some of her work – which include a durian the size of a 20 sen coin, sushi pieces as small as rice grains and a zongzi (festive dumpling) that can be balanced on the tip of a finger – has helped amass more than 30,000 followers on her Instagram account, “PicoWorm”.
She coined the name to play on the word “bookworm”, which is someone who loves books and reading. She replaced “book” with “pico”, which is a tremendously small unit in the metric system, to suggest a person devoted to making small things.
What Lim loves about her art is the process it takes to make those tiny things. She extracts way more satisfaction in figuring out how to make an item – which is often by trial and error – that completing it becomes a detail, and almost an anti-climax, she says.
Lim’s fame has grown to an extent that she now gets requests by foreign clients, like the special order from a Singaporean recently. The person wanted a replica of her grandfather’s old provision shop, which had closed down after a 35-year run.
And so, Lim, using photographs and descriptions given by the client, recreated the shop complete with posters, confectionery and even the pavement bricks, 35 times smaller than the original.
It was a very meaningful project for Lim because she was able to build someone’s memories into something solid and lasting.
Now, she aspires to tell stories and evoke a sense of nostalgia through her work. She hopes to hold a full exhibition one day with her grandma-inspired kitchen as one of the exhibits.
Her dedication to her art has won over her mother, somewhat. On some nights, Wong will walk into her daughter’s room to look at her work, to admire the details of the miniatures and take pictures to show her colleagues. When asked if she was proud of her daughter’s achievements, she replies in Cantonese; “Duo siu lo (more or less)”.