No support or funding? Do it yourself, say artists who have been there and done that
TEXT BY PAMELA HOILLUSTRATIONS BY PIXELFLUX
Published on 15 March 2015
TEXT BY PAMELA HOILLUSTRATIONS BY PIXELFLUX
Every one of us has the power to create. Each of us has something to say and a preferred way to say it. As social beings, we also have a desire to share something of ourselves with others. Whether it’s to write a book or a new song, to capture images that move us or to pick up a pencil and draw, we have it in us to create infinite things from nothing.
But what holds us back from sharing it is often a sense of self-doubt, a fear that what we’re doing is not good enough. In our minds, validation often comes in the form of securing a grant or commission, the backing of a publisher, recording label or art gallery.
However, that can so easily become an excuse to do nothing. Meet a breed of brave do-it-yourself (DIY) artists who refuse to let anything hold them back.
“I don’t wait around moping. I make films on my own terms. I take what I have and make the best film I know how,” says independent film-maker Kan Lumé, whose feature film Singapore Girl was screened at the Singapore International Film Festival 2014.
Two other recent films by Lumé — Liberta and The Naked DJ — won the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema awards for Best Asian Film. “They were made by my wife and I,” he shares. “We funded the films out of our own pockets; I shot while she edited.”
In fact, his debut feature film, The Art of Flirting, was made with just $200 over two days and went on to win Best ASEAN Feature at the Malaysian Video Awards in 2005.
“Initially, when I set out to make films, I wanted the full works: the latest technology, an editor, cinematographer, set designer, wardrobe person, a good production team,” he reveals. “But so far, I’ve not been able to obtain funding.”
However, the lack of resources did not stop Lumé from making award-winning films. “If you’re willing to make up your own rules and play your game faithfully over a period of time, you’ll eventually make an impression.”
For Deepika Shetty, a journalist and arts correspondent for The Straits Times, writing her first novel, The Red Helmet, took her on a rollercoaster ride. “The actual writing took nine months, but finding the confidence to write it took me 23 years. I didn’t have very much confidence in my voice before that.”
For someone who anchored a weekly segment on books for Channel NewsAsia’s Primetime Morning, and moderated sessons at literary festivals in Singapore and overseas, Shetty surprises with her disclosure. But her initial self-doubt echoes our own.
“I’m what the industry would call a ‘first-time single-title author’, which essentially meant I was on a ping-pong table being tossed around with no one interested in my book,” she says. Although she found a publisher in India to print her books, no one would distribute it here.
What ensued was an epic endeavour to move 60 cartons, each containing 40 books and weighing 11kg. “At one point, when I looked at the boxes stacked to my ceiling, I felt this would be the end of me. Today, we only have three boxes at home.”
What Shetty did was turn to social media. At the peak of her self-driven publicity and marketing efforts, she was posting every hour, storyboarding each post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Her hashtag #theredhelmet started to trend. “At one point, we had shipped over 300 books within a week!” she recalls.
“Most of the distribution was done on our dining table. My children helped write addresses on envelopes, updated the spreadsheet and even helped me carry boxes to the post office. On weekends, we did islandwide drives, dropping off copies and collecting payments,” she recounts, adding that she has since found a distributor.
Her advice? “Have absolute conviction in what you have created. I’ve been called many things by critics, and criticism hurts. At one point, I broke down. But I picked myself up, put on my blinkers and kept going with what I believed in.”
For Singaporean singer-songwriter Charles Jedidiah (formerly known as Charles J Tan), it took winning a songwriting competition in Australia to convince him to pursue music full-time.
In 2008, the Melbourne-based musician started a home studio where he did his songwriting, arranging, recording and mixing. “I worked part-time at a café to release my first EP, The Pelham Sessions. But as I started releasing music, more opportunities came. My songs were played on radio, my shows and residencies translated into regular income.”
To last the long haul, he simplifed his lifestyle. “I cut away a lot of the fat I was used to, like eating out at restaurants and shopping. I realised then there are many things I don’t need!”
Although he’s received recording contract offers, Jedidiah has so far declined to sign the dotted line. “I decided some time ago that I was probably not comfortable handing over control to someone else,” he explains. “After researching and getting legal advice, I set up my own label.”
With the birth of Small Batch Records in 2012, Jedidiah went on to release a full-length album, Maybe Somewhere North, a year later. He remains hands-on in every aspect of his vocation.
He says of his DIY journey, “I had to learn to network, to get my music heard by the right decision-makers, to ask for business — all this is not second nature to me,” he laughs. “But we get good at what we do, and greatness comes from focused practice.”
When former teacher, Otto Fong, decided to become a full-time comic artist, he turned to Johnny Lau, creator of the Mr Kiasu series of comics, for help. Other mentors he sought included local comic artists Dengcoy Miel and Lee Hup Kheng. Declares Fong, “Through the years, they gave me some of the most valuable tips. They were my Yodas.”
This former Raffles Institution science teacher is the creator of the popular Sir Fong’s Adventures in Science comic series. Set in surreal sci-fi scenarios and featuring compelling characters, Fong teaches scientific concepts and their usefulness through cool comics.
Interestingly, Fong started out with three publishers before he opted to go DIY. He explains, “I was told my books didn’t sell, and that was apparently why they didn’t go into reprint. Later, I found out they had sold out within a year! The publisher made me believe my book was unloved, that I was not a good artist, when the truth was very different.”
In 2008, he founded Ottonium Comics and has been writing full-time and self-publishing since. To date, he has sold over 15,000 books, and is completely hands-on in the process, right down to choosing the right paper and carting books to school talks himself.
Fong reveals that printing a book can cost $3 to $6. On average, he forks out about $5,000 per print run, excluding editor and proof-reader fees.
“For the Sir Fong series, I got creative with sourcing for funds,” he discloses. “On the topic of light, for example, I met with a few companies keen on promoting their products related to light and convinced them to advertise in my book!”
Fong has also written, illustrated and self-published the Black Peony novel series, a story set in Mae Sot, Thailand, featuring a female warrior from outer space, who disguises herself as an orphan to protect Earth from Asian ghost-like invaders. Who says it can’t be done?
For artists and photographers, affordable exhibition spaces do exist. For starters, try the artsy cafés. Artistry, for example, offers various options — including commission-based payment — negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Busy cafés also enjoy a constant stream of traffic, which translates to more people eyeballing your work.
Going the DIY route may be a matter of circumstance for some, and choice for others. But the one thing that binds all DIY artists is an attitude of making things happen, with or without external support. And they will tell you the personal journey has been invaluable.
“It takes courage, belief, will power, a certain foolishness and vision to see things differently and do things differently,” says Lumé. “There are definitely ways to do it independently, but these paths are unmarked and you’ll have to discover them for yourself.”
Who says you’re too old to pursue your passion and share your art?
Artist Hawa Majeed is in her 60s and a grandmother, but her love for art and painting has not dimmed. It began when she was in Primary 1 at St Hilda’s School. “In those days, it was coloured powder which we had to mix with water,” she recalls.
But for decades, there was no room in her life to paint. After getting married at 16, she started a restaurant, working from 4am to 10pm every day to raise her three sons. It was only when she retired in 2002 that she rediscovered her passion.
“When I started painting again, I forgot my breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she chuckles. “I was loving every moment of it!”
This Pioneer-Generation artist has since created more than 100 pieces of artwork, mostly oil on canvas and acrylic. Recently, she converted her living room into an art gallery. And with the help of her children, set up a Facebook page to display her art for sale.
“I don’t feel sad letting them go,” she smiles. “I know they’ll bring happiness to someone else’s home.”
To view artist Hawa’s art, call to make an appointment at 8199-0049.