Helen So aka miiasoey showing us her zines while sipping on her Ube Latte with coconut milk
Hi Helen, can you tell us a short description about yourself?
Hi, my name is Helen and I'm from Hong Kong. I just moved to New York about 10 months ago. Back in Hong Kong, I was an art teacher but since moving to New York, I have become a full time artist.
That is a big move, how has it been?
Moving to New York has been challenging and exciting at the same time. Ever since I've been here, I always try to be super active, you know, going to places like bookstores, cafes, museums, exhibitions and that has opened up new perspectives, new topics in creating my art. I love making connections with people. Especially creating a community within my own comfort bubble. One example of what I have started adding to my art is incorporating a little bit of the Cantonese culture or language and people can relate or they are curious about it and then we will have a conversation.
Zines, postcards and stickers - how Helen brings her art and stories to everyone
So what’s your process? Where do you find inspiration and how do you stay creative?
In my work, you can clearly see that I take inspiration from my surroundings and living in the moment. I don't have to make anything out of it sometimes. I just like, observe and appreciate conversations with people or even like, flowers on the road will stop me. I’ll look at it, take a photo and that might inspire the process of my artwork.
How does it feel being an artist here versus in Hong Kong?
I think, like, being here people ask me many interesting questions and I really love that approach because in Hong Kong there’s often an invisible wall between people and art. They are intimidated by it sometimes so they would look at it from a distance and then they will somehow put you on a higher ground, say, oh I can't do art so I'm just gonna watch from a distance. Here, like I have said earlier, my art creates many new conversations, people don’t hesitate to engage and ask questions about my ideas and process.
Tell us a bit about your education, did you go to art school?
I did my degree in Fine Arts in Hong Kong. I was also in the UK for high school and that experience actually strengthened the expression of my creativity. I couldn't stay there for university because it was just too expensive for overseas students. Then I had to make a decision to go back to Hong Kong to continue my art degree.
As we sit and talk about Helen’s story back in Hong Kong, we noticed that our barber across the street is called New Hong Kong Barber Shop. Helen loves this photo and said she will send the photo to her mom and grandma.
Were your parents supportive of you choosing a career in art?
Well, luckily my mom has been always like very supportive of me taking art classes since I was a kid and didn't really say much when I said wanted to do a degree in Fine Arts. But I remember vividly the day that I graduated, she did ask me: “So, what now?”. She was just worried. There were a few moments when she did try to introduce me to work in the government so I can earn money or save some money so that I can continue being an artist. She also said to get married some moments along the way but I think after years of trying she was just like, ok, you still surviving, you're still trying hard so just don't stop yourself. I then eventually became an art teacher teaching drawing to kids and my mom wasn’t 100% happy about that since it’s still not a secure job. I wasn’t doing well financially but eventually she could see the artworks from the kids and the parents were very very very happy about it so she was happy for me.
Let’s get into knowing you better through your art, walk us through the evolution of your art up until this point.
OK, so earlier in my university years and the first few years after I graduated, I was still very much focused on paintings, sometimes mixed media and installations of conceptual art because I'm from a Fine Arts background and they were pushing it more in that direction. My earlier practice was conceptual but also realistic. Like painting realistically but with an abstract concept.
Earlier broken seashell painting that Helen made
I was also creating some mixed media installation work at university that opened up my practice a little bit to make more interactive artworks. I really enjoyed interactive art practice. I can just think of an activity, have people join in and then I’d document the whole thing. Then that can be displayed in the gallery.
Helen’s earlier artworks involved more documenting the interaction with people
I do have a lot of styles over the years and after graduation I was introduced to a lot of Hong Kong comics and animation styles at my first job. I also had the chance to go to a French comic festival back then so that has inspired me to start doodling comics. I've been reading comics all my life, you know, everybody draws Sailor Moon when they were kids and I did a lot of that when I was a kid. laugh Another contributing factor is at my first job, I was super busy. I was always dealing with a lot of projects and I didn't really have the time to channel my own art. That's why I started doodling between meetings when I was working overtime.
That's how I started my doodling style but at the same time, I was still doing my paintings. I love seashells so I painted giant paintings of them. So that's how I picked up so many styles, and leading to today, I still have all these different styles and working with different mediums. For example, even doodling, I have different approaches. I have the digital ones, I also have a detailed journal doodling style and it actually helps me process stuff too.
Example of Helen’s doodling journal
What do you like the most about making digital illustrations or drawings?
I create digital work a lot more now I think it's because it's faster and it also documents things quite easily. I don't usually want to focus so much on the on the final product but also the process and experience the art of making art. Like even when I was teaching the kids in Hong Kong, I don't want parents of the kids to focus like 100% on the final product because that is not the point of making the art. Learning or exploring is part of it too. The experience starts not only from the the moment the pen touches the paper, it begins when you look at something that inspires you.
Can you tell us a bit about your show at Artbean?
This upcoming show at Artbean Coffee will be about my storybooks based on my experience of teaching kids’ art for years in Hong Kong and what I got out from that experience. The storybook is called ‘I am a Bad Art Teacher’. It’s about how I teach the kids, like, not following any rules and by trying to be creative and as free as they can.
So why are you a bad teacher?
So this is interesting because in Hong Kong or at the art studio that I was teaching, parents who send their kids to the art studio, I wouldn't say 100% of the of them, but many of them want the kids to sit properly, listen to the teacher, listen to orders. They expect the kid to to draw perfect lines and circles and color within the lines. I think teaching kids art, especially such at a young age, we were lacking the exploration aspect. I want to teach them to embrace the “mistakes” because it was pretty sad to see young kids not satisfied with what they did and some of them even cried. It's very hard to make them unlearn what they have been told - to be perfect, so that's why, back to the question of why I am a bad art teacher, because to some parents who expect perfect drawings, I am a bad art teacher.
“You are the magic” sticker - miiasoey x Artbean. Free sticker available on exhibition opening day, while supplies last.
To celebrate our collaboration with Helen, we will have a special menu at the cafe for the duration of her show. Inspired by the beloved drink from Hong Kong - Yuen Yeung (Cantonese for Yin Yang), this is our version of Yuen Yeung!
The opening day for Helen’s show is on Saturday, August 6th. She’ll be hosting a meet & greet along with “the bad art teacher’s” very own art class for everyone to join.
Come join us at Artbean Coffee on Saturday, 12-5pm on 19 Doyers Street in Chinatown, NYC.