On re-prioritizing ways of survival
Shirly Koh (she/her), artist & art educator, interviewed by Rifqi Amirul Rosli, 13 July 2021
This was a Zoom call conversation, Shirly was preparing for class in a kindergarten studio while I was at home. We took some time to chat and catch up before her class began!

Rifqi Amirul Rosli: How has your work been over the past year as a teacher, as an educator, but also practicing as an artist ? What makes you continue what you do?
Shirly Koh: For the past year, it's like a graph. Let me draw it, I don't know how to translate it into words.
RAR: Wait, so you're drawing?
SK: Yeah this is it!

SK: It has been a roller coaster. After being a bit on the lower end of the graph, you start to think of ways of getting out of it - you re-prioritize your ways of survival. So these feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration and helplessness turns into a different kind of energy to realize that I actually have extra time. To rest, to breathe, to think about my practice and to spend time with people I treasure. For the longest time as an artist educator, I always wanted to teach less, but I guess COVID has sped up the process so now I have all the time in the world to re-look and re-figure your priorities in life.
RAR: You know how we talked last time that we are always applying for as many part time teaching jobs. And just right before COVID, we were just discussing how overwhelmed and overworked we were and we needed to teach less.  Hence, we just wanted more high value jobs as some were not really worth travelling for.

SK: Yeah, definitely. I cut out a lot of my work and I consciously made a choice to not work. So I have been selective of my the jobs i take since the start of the year. So instead of like going back to my 'hustle mode', I think there's more to life than just earning. Earning money is very important because we have to care for our families, to save money for housing, for expenses, hang out with friends. However the main point is that now, I chose to not work too much and over-pack myself, and give enough time for myself to rest and breathe. And that's how my illustration instagram account came about too!
RAR: The illustration account is 'shirly.breaths'?
SK: Yeah! So it's called 'shirly.breaths' because I finally had time to be alive and to finally breathe.
RAR: And this illustration, like, aligned with your practice or more like a side project?
SK: Sometimes it doesn't, but lately it has become more related to my art practice. Previously I started the account because I just wanted to challenge myself in technical painting, but it's not related. But gradually, I'm starting to paint the mundane, the everyday, the clouds, the stillness. The little, daily moments and memories too. So it kind of relates back to my practice, which is appreciating the mundane and slowing down. Yeah, slowing down. Recently, someone sent me a text asking for my latest artist statement. So I made some changes and it is very simple now. It just states that I have a keen interest in the everyday mundane, with the goal to celebrate and appreciate the small moments in life. So it's like my life and art combine to become almost together. Now, I just really enjoy connecting with my inner world so I can relate this back to my teaching practice too. It also guides me to understand myself relating to other people and connecting with people who I care about. 

It relates to my recent work "Feelings Are Alright" - a participatory work and installation which was shown at ISLANDS. So the work involves participation from my friends or strangers as I ask them to spend one day just contemplating about their feelings and describing them in pictures, songs or any imagery and in return I will respond to them in my own way with drawings, embroidery and other things. It's a project just celebrating the importance of giving time to yourself to connect to yourself.

RAR: How are you right now with your current art community/peers? Have you been interacting with them?
SK: Not really! Maybe Cynthia? I felt like my art circle got smaller and smaller! Because my interest towards the mental well being and everyday mundane so it's like not really the "coolest" thing, you know?
RAR: Haha, what does it mean to be the coolest thing?
SK: To put it simply, I guess Art & Technology is the next biggest thing right? And it's the 'wow' factor of it all too. But I'm happy going in the direction I'm heading at, even though it's not the "mainstream" or "glamourous" route. I'm not too bothered about how people define my practice as long as I know myself, that is good enough for me.

I realized, after the pandemic happened, I am happy that a lot of people are prioritizing mental health more. A lot of art communities are also giving space to have discussions about the importance of just resting, recharging, doing nothing. I like how these words are getting more circulated now too rather than the conceptual kind of language or thinking.
RAR: Or even like abstract or academic language right? I think it's kind of a good thing.  
SK: I think it's very nice, especially when I teach students as an artist educator. So when I teach, I don't just relay technical knowledge or theories, but at the same time, I want to go beyond what art can be. Not just technical skills but also a more human skill which they can apply in real life.
RAR: Yeah, human skills!

SK: Recently, I got a gig for an artist-in-school scheme at a primary school and I was quite excited about that. I really liked the way the school had acknowledge the need for a experimental space for the students to learn how to speak, how to talk to their friends, how to help each other, how to how to ask for help - these very basic things that is so important that will benefit their social, emotional skill and encourage confidence in them.
RAR: So what has been your latest project?
SK: I have been working on a few cyanotypes! I just want to do a series about the colour blue because the blues in Cyanotypes are so pretty! This sounds superficial but I just like it.
RAR: Maybe there's an emotional part about the colour? I like how back then you were always talking about colour and emotions.
SK: Yeah, in general I like how this is a great project for experimentation but I guess blue is a colour for contemplation and reflection too.
RAR: That's cool! So I guess it's quite balanced right now with regards to your time spent with teaching jobs, social life and art practice. Have there been any obstacles you faced recently?
SK: I'm facing some obstacles in my practice, I think. I find it a bit difficult to find people to have similar interests as I do. Most of them that I know, have veered to other forms of mental wellbeing like farming, yoga, meditation but not much art practice. I feel like it's a little bit stagnant or perhaps lonely at times. But I am hopeful to find an interest group maybe.

RAR: Yeah, I think it sometimes can be pretty hard for some artists to find common ground with other people on a very specific interest too. Sometimes I struggle with it because they have never lived my experience. So, then it comes to my question about what kind of changes you would like to see in regards to the creative circle you're in or your art education career in general.
SK: I think there's nothing much with the Art side of things but I wish there is a rule about cancellation. I guess it is part and parcel of being a freelance art educator too, that if there's a sudden cancellation of a project due to COVID, the least the client should do is to remunerate the cost of planning and the time it took for us freelancers to set up a program. Maybe other industries have a remuneration practice, but not the education industries yet.
RAR: I agree! These cancellations can affect us so much. Especially the last minute cancellations. We are expected to be okay with that too. alone like that. I even had a parent that I'm teaching art tuition to, suddenly cancelled classes during the heightened alert. Which left me jobless for the whole month or two. Maybe there should be contracts for these things you know? SK: I recently met a super unreasonable parent, and I just had to cancelled the whole thing because of certain reason. I felt that if I don't do that, I'm like, yeah, I'm being shortchanged and not protecting myself and the others who are in the industry too.
RAR: Yeah. Also, because they are not in institutions or tuition centers, they can do whatever they want to freelance as it is more casual for them. So I think it is also up to us to be very firm with them. 

SK: Super random thing but I saw the median income for Singaporeans and they separated it into different economic sectors but then I saw the Education sector is not great at all! Even in tuition, a lot of people will put money into main subjects like English, Math and Sciences rather than other enrichments like Art or Music. I guess we deserve to be as important too and that there is so much room for improvement.
RAR: So what are your hopes for the next few months or do you have any expectations for the next few months? SK: I hope that my only hope is that the recovery situation gets better. I think the pandemic helped me to shift my priorities and different perspectives too. After doing "Feelings Are Alright" I'm really satisfied with my current practice as I gave it my all. At this point, I feel that my practice has shifted its priority too and that I want to focus on educating now. Previously I felt the need to earn money just to sustain a practice, but right now, what I need is to have balance between practice, teaching, spending time with close ones and sufficient time to rest. I think I'll be okay!