This is part of an on-going series of interviews by Yinsey Wang with East Asian voices around the globe. The series aims to introduce perspectives from different walks of life.
Amber Hsu, a Chinese-born, US-raised, UK-based wordsmith, artist, and designer, isn’t your typical creative. She’s done a stint at a morgue, worked with the Royal Court Theatre and National Theatre Studios, and completed two degrees covering a wide range of subjects ranging from Biophysics to Design, and from Classical Studies to Comparative Literature.
Her illustrations grapple with dark themes and bring to life fantastical creatures with humanoid features and expressions. The colours and visuals are not intruding but instead subtly disarming – positioning you in a space between fiction and reality, whilst your most bizarre dreams and distant memories seem to unfurl right before your eyes. Hsu’s monochrome landscapes bring you to a totally different world, thriving with monsters, ecosystems and the presence of the supernatural.
Gifted with a playful entrepreneurial spirit, she founded the artzine Tiny Pencil. The publication brings together imaginative minds in haunting collection of unwavering mystique – spiriting away the viewer in an exploration of artistic mediums, subdued monochrome colours, and meticulous, captivating detail.
Your illustrations are beautiful, moving and occasionally dark. What are your greatest influences?
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with a Japanese animation film called the Sea Prince and the Fire Child. It was a classic tale of Romeo and Juliet retold in the guise of fantasy fairies and creatures, as well as quite cosmic and mystical. That of the tragic and the fantastical has always stayed with me.
I also read a lot of quite dark books when I was young. Because I come from an immigrant family and couldn’t relate as well to a lot of the contemporary children’s books at the time – whose worlds seemed so different to mine – I ended up reading a lot of fantasy, or period works. I also read many novels about animals, and the wilderness – most of which were about survival of some sort. So I think from an early age, I was processing the world in terms of life and death.
I am a naturally curious person, and I’m always up for an adventure!
You have worked in a morgue – what was that like?
Both deeply disturbing and morbidly amusing. It was a bit of an unusual environment where you had very young people who were interested in medicine working alongside doctors. Sometimes, I do think it’s a bit strange that I wasn’t even technically an adult yet by the time I’d scalped and sawn through a human skull. But, mostly, I remember it being an absurdly funny environment. I think being confronted with death regularly in such a clinical, objective way, you can’t help but develop a bit of a morbid and slightly inappropriate sense of humour. It’s a way of remaining emotional and human without wholly giving over to the fact that you have dead people all around you. Maybe that’s another reason I like dark things. I feel like I’ve been around a lot of death.
Tell us a bit more about your artzine Tiny Pencil.
Tiny Pencil is an anthology artzine featuring all graphite art, illustration, and comics. We just launched our first volume in April of this year, recently completed our summer issue and have a fall volume on the way. It’s been an amazing adventure so far and we’ve been really lucky to work with so many great artists. The fact that it’s such a simple, analogue medium in an increasingly digital world has surprised people and struck up a bit of a chord. It’s amazing how easily we forget the most extraordinary things can sometimes come from the simplest of tools.
For more information, please visit http://tinypencil.com/
You’re a part of Restless Buddha productions. Why do you think it is so important to raise social consciousness through culture?
Well so much of what we believe and do is influenced by political and cultural “soft power”. We’re forming ideas and assumptions of the world from a very young age based on a system of cultural production replete with its own motives and agendas. So I think it’s really important to be aware of that process and the fact that all the ideas and images in your head—all that culture—is coming from some angle, and being constructed by someone for some particular purpose.
If you want to raise social consciousness, it’s more effective and almost imperative that you speak a cultural language people can relate to. So it’s about being both aware of the process of cultural construction and harnessing it towards some social change. You will get far more people who are willing to listen when ideas are made relatable through a cultural lens.
For more information, please visit http://restlessbuddha.com/home
What piece or artwork means the most to you and why?
Private drawings and sketches made either for myself or a friend, because they are the most personal. If you can make something for someone that you have affection for – you should. It’s a really nice reason to create something.
What is the strangest source of inspiration you have ever had?
Probably some of the dreams I’ve had. Sometimes, I have very detailed dreams that appear fully fleshed with characters in them in an entirely different world, with different social orders, even biologies. I’m sure my mind is cobbling together elements from different films and stories. And I always find that a bit fascinating in how the mind will pluck arbitrary elements and reconstructs them at will in some other shape and form.
Tell us about your identity/identities and how your international experiences have affected you.
In a way it’s been brilliant because I sometimes feel I can belong anywhere by virtue of the fact that I belong nowhere. I live in the UK now, but was born in Taiwan and grew up in the states. I having moved around a bit, but I do sometimes feel a sense of isolation and disconnect, and an overwhelming sense of being without roots and home.
Interestingly, my parents have described similar feelings of displacement and identity estrangement before immigrating to the US. Some people hold on to that myth that identity can be simplified down to ethnicity but my parents had as much issue with identity in Taiwan because their families had been uprooted from mainland China after WWII.
In fact, in some respects, they might have had an easier time in the US. The interesting thing about America, is that you can go there and assume the identity of the immigrant. It becomes something to belong to, and people will accept that and respect it.
Describe your creative process.
Well it varies for different projects. I recently worked on a short audio play produced at the Royal Court Theatre. It was different because it was under a distinct brief. I had to write a piece that would work both on location and reference some part of the building itself, but also work well enough on its own without a physical theatre. It was a really interesting exercise in sonic dramaturgy and I enjoyed having to create against constraints. Creating that way can be easier because it forces you into a direction really quickly so you don’t have time or leeway to wander about too much which I am really apt to do!
For more information, please visit http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/lostintheatre