Bangkok illustrators Chatchanok Wongvachara and Suthipa Kamyam challenge the rules of reality, exploring dreams and nature to give life to stories that would otherwise be lost – or silenced. ‘Even something out of nowhere has a story in itself,’ Suthipa says.
I arrive out of breath and just in time. While leaving my hostel with plenty of time to spare, I missed my ferry stop, got lost in a labyrinth of fenced courts further down the river, stumbled across a line of motorcycle taxis in the middle of nowhere, interrupted a chess game because one of the players was the only one who knew where I was going, weaved helmetlessly through Bangkok’s traffic jams, pushed my way through a market and, finally, ended up eye to eye with a huge monitor lizard on the riverside. Equally startled, we slithered away in separate directions and I found myself outside Jam Factory, a rustic warehouse compound on the west bank of Chao Phraya River, turned into a restaurant, bookshop and art gallery.
Suthipa Kamyam is waiting outside the bookshop, behind the ancient tree that bows across the shaded courtyard. While I get some ice tea to cool down my simmering brain, Chatchanok Wongvachara joins her at the table. Since Suthipa and Chatchanok already knew each other, both having graduated from the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Chulalongkorn University, we decided to merge their interviews into one. Considering my orientation skills and the brevity of my stay in Bangkok, it was probably a good idea not to stretch my luck with two appointments.
Chatchanok and Suthipa are both working full-time as freelance illustrators in Bangkok. Recently, Suthipa has been working on illustrations for a Swiss department store and a Californian winery, as well as pattern designs for a Thai textile company. Chatchanok has done illustrations for a Thai poetry collection and participated as one of twenty selected artists in the anniversary exhibition of a Bangkok-based design company, while figuring out whether to take a Master’s degree or going somewhere as an Artist-in-residence.
Back in March, in the shadow outside Jam Factory, I ask how long they have been drawing. Chatchanok raises her eyebrows.
‘Really?’ she says, and I make a mental note to avoid such preposterous questions in the future. ‘I started when I was three.’
Chatchanok always knew she was going to be an artist, even if it took some convincing before her mother approved of her choice of career. Suthipa, on the other hand, did not start illustrating until she moved to Gothenburg in Sweden, to take a Master’s degree in Design in 2010. She was inspired by all the people who were drawing and designing patterns and asked Swedish illustrator Petra Börner for advice on how to start illustrating without drawing skills. Petra’s answer was simple: ‘Just pick a pencil and start’.
Distractions and detours
‘I believe everyone will find their own way once they start,’ Suthipa says, but admits that starting is one of her biggest struggles as a freelancer. While she keeps a strict working schedule and is not easily distracted once she finds focus, she says the step between the idea and the first sketch can be huge. Instead of gradually working her way towards a solution, she prefers to come up with the final image from the beginning. This, she explains, sometimes makes her think about the project for a bit too long before actually getting started.
Chatchanok, on the other hand, finds it easy to get started but struggles to stay focused throughout the day. About twenty per cent of her working process is digital, and since she uses a stationary iMac, she always works from home, where everyday life calls for attention. However, she is good at calculating exactly how much time she will need for each project and will never let herself stay unfocused for too long.
‘If I get distracted I get up and walk around my house, play with my dogs or watch TV to clear my mind for a little while, but it mustn’t be too long. Then I will come back to finish my work,’ she says.
Suthipa thinks it can be difficult to manage time, especially when she is waiting for feedback from several clients and everyone suddenly gets in touch at the same time.
‘Sometimes I’m too kind,’ she says. ‘If the client wants to change something, I want them to be happy, but sometimes it’s too much.’
Chatchanok has had a similar problem with one of her early clients, where she got a first-hand experience of the importance of reading the fine print:
‘I had just graduated and I thought, “okay, I’ll sign this contract”, but then everything was really messy. Now I have been working on this project for two years, because he is so picky!’
Suthipa and Chatchanok both prefer to work on their own and have mixed feelings about the social side of freelancing:
‘I don’t like client meetings at all,’ Suthipa says. ‘If I could get someone else to do it for me, I would.’
Chatchanok explains that she chose to be a freelancer because she wants to stay in control and manage things by herself; she could not imagine waking up early and going to an office every morning.
‘I like meeting new people,’ she says, ‘but not while I’m working.’
However, they both emphasize the importance of networking:
‘As a freelancer you need to have some connections,’ Chatchanok says. ‘If you don’t feel good about talking or meeting people in public, you can start by chatting with them on social networks, find friends and make connections. Be professional and polite since people always trust their first impressions. If you get nervous, stop and take a breath, then speak more calmly and slowly. Be yourself, but a more confident version.’
When it comes to online connections, they are unanimously positive. Suthipa says most of her clients have found her through online art communities, and that without these, she would not survive as an artist:
‘It’s a great opportunity for anyone who wants to show what they do without being filtered or censored by social popularity,’ she says. ‘It’s a place where people really focus on the work instead of the person.’
Into the wild
Despite their different styles, Suthipa and Chatchanok have one thing in common: they both like to draw nature and animals with a surrealistic twist.
‘I usually find inspiration in my dreams,’ Chatchanok explains. ‘I see a vision in my head, and sometimes it seems realistic but the rules of reality are not making sense. When these rules are gone I will see pictures that I wouldn’t find in real life’
Suthipa says she is always inspired by nature:
‘For me, nature itself is the most surrealistic thing,’ she says. ‘There are many things we can’t explain, and they don’t have to be explained. It’s something in between reality and imagination. A lot of my work is actually based on facts, but you just can’t tell if it’s real or not.’
Having grown up in Bangkok, a city with a population of over eight million people, they both find themselves longing for nature. Chatchanok says her illustrations are a way to get closer to the wild and Suthipa travels to nature whenever she can.
For Suthipa, travelling is also a way to get unstuck and find new inspiration. Her Flickr feed is filled with stunning photographs from remote adventures, and she chose to take her Master’s degree in Gothenburg mainly because it was far away.
‘Sometimes you just have to go somewhere and come back with new eyes,’ she says.
Traveling across Sweden, she found inspiration for her exam work ‘Once, Somewhere Between’, which consists of four posters and a pattern, each retelling a half-forgotten tale.
‘I always start with a story,’ she says. ‘Even something out of nowhere has a story in itself. I interpret them in my own way, and leave a lot of space for the audience to interpret them by themselves.’
Storytelling is important in Chatchanok’s work, as well. Her work is often symbolical, and that is one of the reasons she likes to draw animals.
‘I don’t know if my style is unique enough,’ she says, ‘but I think what makes it stand out is the content of my illustrations. I like to add stories or irony, and not just draw people or things but also what I really feel.’
However, there are limits to what she can express in her art. Growing up in Thailand, there is always a frame, Chatchanok explains. Divisions between ages and classes and races are so deeply rooted in Thai society that many young people find it natural. The national values of nation, religion and monarchy are more or less sacred and certain subjects must be left untouched. This has become especially evident in the aftermath of last year’s coup d’état.
‘People who disagree would be brought to jail’ Chatchanok says. ‘I’m not joking, it’s really dangerous.’
Later, on my way back toward the day market that has turned into a night market, I stop by the river. Boats rattle by. A mosquito sets camp on my arm. Somewhere nearby, the monitor lizard might be having dinner. I think about fear and its incomparability. The surreality of growing up without the freedom you take for granted. And the importance of seeing the world through different eyes once in a while. icon-dot-circle-o