Art Club

Why I’m Obsessed With… Making Enigmatic Art

As told by Melyssa Lim, graduate of the California College of the Arts.

Why I’m Obsessed With… Making Enigmatic Art

It’s never fun to stick to what one knows — especially when you can imagine up wildly new things.

That’s what artist Melyssa Lim thinks. “I was a very picky Montessori kindergarten student who refused to paint fruit in the colours that they exist in,” laughs the artist, who recently graduated from the California College of the Arts (CCA) with distinction. “And when we had to draw and cut out our favourite animals to paste into our books, I remember being laughed at by my classmates as my giant green giraffe was too big to paste within the borders of the page.”

  • Melyssa Lim, happy with drawing at her Montessori Kindergarten class
  • Making crafts was always her favourite activity
  • The middle child among three girls, Melyssa Lim was never short of playmates in her garden and courtyard.

Being an anomaly never bothered the artist, nor her family. While mom Dr Ann Tan is a well-known obstetrician and gynaecologist and both her sisters are in the medical field, Lim has always been well-supported in her love for the arts.

Growing up, she would run out of their house barefoot with her ceramic mortar and pestle set that she would bury behind a specific bush as a secret hiding spot. With a stump left from a chopped tree there, it was the perfect height for her outdoor art table. After walking around the garden to forage flowers and leaves of different hues with her younger sister, they would sit there to crush and grind the finds on what they called their “mixing station”. The mixes would then lay in separate piles on a giant banana leaf, akin to a plate of “multi-coloured nasi lemak”.

Lim shares: “I was obsessed with this hands-on pigment-making process, just like how I was fascinated by the mixing of oils and colour dyes with water as they swirled into multi-coloured concoctions.”

  • Coral Infested Stool by Melyssa Lim, which won her The Class of 2020 Curator’s Pick Award at the California College of the Arts (CCA) just before she graduated.

Today, her art is even more intriguing. A white-washed “Coral Infested Stool’ was selected and showcased as The Class of 2020 Curator’s Pick Award recognising outstanding work by graduating students of the CCA. Her professor was impressed by her love for embellishment and fantasy. And her art, whether in 2D or 3D, was always enigmatic as it pushed boundaries and flouted many rules of the existing.

Bob Ciano, senior adjunct professor at CCA, reveals that in his 40 years of teaching, Lim’s work was among the best and most surprising he has ever seen. “Melyssa always pushed the definition of what illustration was and could be. Nothing was flat or predictable. Everything was innovative and very well-crafted,” he says.

When I was young, I would… weave sharp grasses into chains, and for Mother’s and Father’s Day, I would present a handmade card with a bunch of 3D pop-up elements in it along with a cake I had baked.

The free-spirited artist’s favourite childhood memories of her and her sister playing outdoors, especially during thunderstorms.

One of my favourite childhood memories is… about frolicking around the courtyard and gardens with my sisters and friends during an absolute tropical thunderstorm.

When my classmates laughed at me for my giant green giraffe, I… never felt the need to calm down or change what I wanted to make. In fact, it only pushed me to make things that would challenge any prompt I was given.  

Since young, art-making happens when… I get this sudden urge and then an idea hits. From using cardboard boxes thrown out by my neighbours as sleds to slide down grassy hills to using discarded cords and ropes to experiment with abseiling down the sides of trees and playground structures, I was constantly making things.

  • Under her illustrations Dwellings came the idea for the rotating side table.
  • The rotating side table

Art was a natural path for me because… I had this ever-growing itch to fiddle with materials to create something functional from scratch.

Growing up, I was drawn to… old vintage toys and books and old-school biscuit tins. I still am. I am absolutely obsessed with anything that looks retro and rusted. I remember making rabbit-shaped lanterns with fluff on the tails out of them.

During my teenage years, I started to… attempt making things look old and vintage, from aged paper to chunky odd metal sculptures.

In high school, I was enthralled by… making fireworks, I read a lot of books on it. This was when I started to experiment more in multi-media pieces. I spent a month studying moss and trying to mimic its nature through different forms of media. I also started painting large-scale murals that incorporated my friends.

My heroes are… chefs such as Francis Mallmann and Heston Blumenthal and the artists Marcel DuChamp, Luigi Serafini, Bruno Munari and the list goes on.

I prefer to find inspiration in… unexpected places – for the beautiful, odd and even terrifying. It is usually witnessing random uncanny moments that inspire me the most.

My ideas often come from… accidents and colour combinations found in nature.

In five words, I am… observant, meticulous, experimental, determined… and petite.

I am drawn to things of… haunting beauty. I love dark fairytales and gruesome details. I find those to have richer and deeper colours.

  • The Two Tales Tapestry plays on opposites that complement each other, elements in unity.
  • This tapestry comes in different colour ways, depending on your preference for warm or cooler tones.

My illustrations depict such strangeness because… they come from my dreams, which are mystical and sort of grim fairytale-like. And they are always surreal. I think it is more interesting and fun to look at things that do not exist in our reality. How fun would a tiny giraffe mosquito whizzing around the room be? I made a whole chart of random objects and animals that are sized down to 1:1 to the size of a mosquito for instance, a cake-squito, nose-squito, spork-squito, camel-squito and finger-squito! 

I drew a picture of a heart transplant with a strawberry because… it simply flows. Sometimes I make extremely disconnected connections. I think following my mother down to the hospital for her 3am caesareans as a kindergartener really desensitised me to gory details. It was always fun to follow her on her past midnight missions! 

My heart for the arts lies in… crafts like woodworking, ceramic and anything sculptural, even though I majored in illustration.

My favourite materials come from… everything. They range from polyurethane foam (used in sofa and cushions) to mycelium (network of fungi threads or hyphae that thrive underground or in rotting trees), clay, paints, wood, fabric, metal, even fire and cow intestines.

My modus operandi for my craft… usually does not come with a fully sketched plan. I like to incorporate happy incidents, it also trains me to be detached from producing art that is too clean or obvious.

I enjoy the meticulous process of… pencil drafting on a one-to-one scale on paper when it comes to furniture-making, even if it takes multiple attempts to get it right.

Melyssa Lim’s Morel Coffee Table was inspired by a chance encounter with a Bridal Veil Stinkhorn mushroom.

My proudest crafts are… my Morel Coffee Table and my Double Headed Snake Confidant chairs. Furniture pieces are always the most rigorous and rewarding because it takes absolute precision and less room for happy incidents which I am used to. It is like letting a cup of coffee brew and steep, the longer it takes, the richer the flavour.

  • The Double Headed Snake Confidant chairs were inspired by a serpent that came to Melyssa Lim on a summer night’s dream, in which it lured her to sit on a throne in a white mansion.

Taxidermy excites me as… scientific illustrations of botany, microscopic bacteria and illnesses excite me. I hope to incorporate more of it in my future work – a 2.0 version of the Double Headed Confidant chairs with a little arm rest/flat area to set a cup on in the middle of the two seats, which will be the belly bump of the two-headed snake. I picture a harmonious mutualistic relationship between these two snake heads that share a body, both ingesting a mouse each that meet in the middle. This belly bump will have a little chest lock and upon opening it, there will be the two white mice peacefully arranged in a yin and yang position, cast in resin. 

  • The Salami Speaker – which uses cow intestines stretched and dried to create a chamber that enhances the depth in music beats.

One of my works in taxidermy was my… Salami Speaker, which I made in an instrument-making class that is a combination of the furniture and industrial design department. We were told to make some sort of resonating chamber where sound from an already made speaker, when incorporated with our chamber, will enhance sound. We can focus on making the high notes more crisp or on enhancing beats with louder hits.

This got me thinking about how drums use stretched deer hide and how good of a bounce it can create when a drumstick hits it. Then, I went down a path of other similar materials such as stretchy and taut animal skins and boom! Sausage casing! I am always excited to work with unpredictable materials. I bent a metal pole for the structure inside, like a ribbing of an American football, and then got cow intestines, which have the biggest diameter of sausage casings of around four inches. It was a slippery job using the cow intestines to swallow the metal skeleton.

After it dried up and with a bluetooth speaker incorporated into it, it felt like a beating heart in your hand when music was playing, a very unusual feeling. If I had magic powers, I would make art that has a heartbeat – and this is probably as close as it gets. It made me want to create even bigger, perhaps rooms, of a beating chamber. The name came easily after as it dried and looked just like a cocktail salami. It was just as salty too.

Before I complete a project, I always… take a step away and revisit it later to see what is missing.

Strangers often react to my art with… curiosity.

My mom says… she is my biggest fan and truly, she is my biggest supporter.

The most common response to my work… from my professors is that it is unusual. I used to be very affected by these comments because I thought I was doing something wrong or depicting things in a weird way. This has probably been the biggest issue I have had to experience throughout my years. Now, I have gotten better at trusting myself, honing my art and embracing it. I have made many professors disturbed and even made one cry once. I have also intrigued and fascinated many of my professors. With such mix of reactions, I have learnt to simply continue doing what I do, the way I do.

Moth and scarecrow kites remind Melyssa Lim of fun childhood days getting her kites out of trees.

My art also evokes… nostalgia from people because I like them to think about… the simplicity and harness the fearless spirit of adventure they had when they were younger. I hope for people to be unafraid to chase what they want.

If I can make people happy with my art, I would make… anything that does not compromise my own truth and essence to the pieces.

Venus Flytrap hammock that can be customised as a blanket, as a kid’s hammock and more on MelyssaMade’s Etsy store.

I’m currently working on… a range of tapestry/fabric illustrations that I will be printing soon. I also set up an online Etsy store, which has the same name as my website, MelyssaMade. Now I can take in customised orders from here for my work like the Venus Flytrap hammock/blanket, so I can even do it in kid’s size.

I also like photography because… I like composing a photograph or rather, to capture a set-up – it’s like arranging deconstructed shapes into a composition and I enjoy how the placement of things can ignite different responses. It can be perfectly abiding rules of photography to produce a pleasing picture, but my favourite approach is in creating tangents in compositions to spark unconscious feelings of discomfort.

Long days at work for Melyssa Lim in the art studio

With the rest of 2020, I will be… finding new outlets to harness my creativity, getting into new art forms and methods that I have yet to discover.

Crafting massive installations, ones where people interact within, will be one of the ultimate goals.

By 2030, I will be… making large-scale installations. I would like to craft massive installations that people can weave in and out of and interact with. And I hope to be working with people in multi-disciplinary studios or design firms.

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