China Underground > China Views > The Art of Amanda Ruiqing Flynn, Interview

The Art of Amanda Ruiqing Flynn, Interview

The Therapeutic Power of Art in Amanda Flynn’s Life Journey

Amanda Ruiqing Flynn is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, literary translator and creative writing teacher. She is also mother to a curious three-year-old! She has lived all over the world – in Singapore, the United Kingdom and Taiwan. To date, she has held four solo exhibitions and exhibited in many group exhibitions internationally, as well as being selected for and participating in artist residencies. She holds a BA in Chinese and Development Studies from SOAS, University of London, and an MFA in Art and Design from National Dong Hwa University, Taiwan. She is currently based in Singapore with her husband and son.

Amanda Ruiqing Flynn’s Instagram profile

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What motivated you to become an artist? Have you always had a clear vision of your career from an early age?

I was born in Singapore, and my family emigrated to the United Kingdom when I was eight, so I spent my formative years there. The impetus to be creative was within me from a young age; I fondly remember bribing my four-year-old brother to sit still for two hours so I could draw his side profile. The joy of painting and making sculptures with my hands was an everyday part of my childhood and education. I knew more concretely that I wanted to be an artist when wandering around museums and galleries. I would always feel this discomfort, this feeling that I didn’t want to just be an observer of other artists’ work, I wanted to be the creator of it too. Before university, my art teacher took me aside and told me that it would be a real shame if I did not pursue art further, and those words have always stayed with me. The real catalyst for me to place art at the forefront of my life was when I was diagnosed with Cushings Disease at the age of 23. When all around me my peers were entering into their first post-university jobs, I was forced to take a step back after graduating from university as I waited to undergo a life-saving operation to remove a tumour in my pituitary gland and to receive radiotherapy too. So just as life was speeding up for my friends, life forced me to slow down for a year, and I quelled my deep anxiety about the future by the simple act of sitting in front of a blank canvas and pouring out my complicated emotions. Art was my companion through illness and recovery, when everything else seemed uncontrollable, and that’s when I knew I really needed it to survive.

After I recovered from the illness, I saw life in a completely different way. I knew that having survived, if I didn’t have the courage to look within my heart and do what I truly wanted to do now, I never would. So I bought a one way ticket to Taiwan, and nestled within the mountains and ocean of Hualien on the east of the island, I further recuperated, taught children, and painted and created each day. The nature and creative projects were a balm to process everything: illness, heartbreak, family issues, and importantly, to learn self-resilience. I grew physically and mentally stronger each day. This culminated in 2019, when I was awarded my MFA in Art and Design after being granted a full scholarship from the Taiwanese government. And now, in honouring the serendipity of the circle of life, I am back in Singapore, living here with my husband and son. So all in all, when I think about my vision for my career and life, I would say that at various crossroads in my life, the hand of fate has forced me to reckon with my life path, and I have had to make major decisions to either follow my heart and gut, or not. And I have always followed my heart, which has brought me to where I am today.

What piece of art impressed you the most in your childhood? What are your best memories related to art?

The art that impressed me most in my childhood does not sit in a gallery, but in a church. A small church in the tiny little village of Tudeley, Kent, a stone’s throw from my hometown in England. I stumbled across this church one day, and whilst I’m not religious, I entered and felt this calm wash over me. For on the walls were panel after panel of stained glass windows, all painted by famous artist Marc Chagall. Imagine, this nondescript church in the middle of nowhere housing such beauty. The relative darkness and brick walls of the church contrasted with the light shining through the yellows and the deep blues of the delicate glass. To this day, I can’t explain the feeling. And this was long before I knew about Chagall’s more famous artworks. One of my best memories related to art is standing in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and viewing Self-portrait of Marc Chagall for the first time. As you might have guessed, I am a great admirer of Chagall’s work. His surrealist depictions of floating people and animals in mid-air speak to me of love. So when I saw his self-portrait with a floating bride and chicken set in a backdrop of blue, it was just mesmerising to me. And housed in the setting of the Uffizi Gallery, which alone is magnificent, for it sits in the wider backdrop of Florence, I felt like I had come home – art housed in art housed in art. It somehow reminded me of that little church in Kent, but I was hundreds of miles away in a different country, and a decade later.

Multidisciplinary Artist Proficient in a Variety of Artistic Mediums, Accomplished Writer, and Chinese-to-English Translator

You are a skilled multidisciplinary artist. What medium better focuses on your personality? What do you love most about your job, what are the greatest satisfactions?

I am akin to a chef who is obsessed and enjoys cooking many different dishes from different cuisines, and often fusion ones. And so when I create a piece of artwork, it’s often because I have an idea in my mind that I want to come to fruition, something I desperately want to say, and I am confident in using a wide range of mediums to create that. Apart from painting on canvas, I have tried my hand successfully at woodwork, metalwork and claywork. Having said that, the mediums I enjoy using most, due to their ease of set up and clear up (as I currently have a young child who likes to emulate me) is pen and ink, oil pastels, as well as using acrylics to paint with my fingers. The latter is a technique which everyone, regardless of artistic background, needs to try, for it’s extremely cathartic! There is a freedom in taking away the middleman that is the paint brush and directly expressing your emotions on canvas which speaks to my need for freedom.

There are so many things I love about being a visual artist as I count myself very lucky to be able to visualise images in my mind and express what I want to say on the canvas. My greatest satisfactions are when someone looks at my work and it invokes something in them, whether that is an emotion or a deeper question that makes them look at their world in a different way, be that their environment, politics or the philosophy of life. I enjoy sparking thoughts and feelings that enable the viewer to understand their reality more or make them feel less alone. And I don’t underestimate being able to evoke happiness, simple happiness, for it is not necessary to obfuscate the viewer on purpose. I try to create art that is both intellectual and emotional, and is able to speak to another human. If I can do that successfully, I am satisfied.

What is the biggest challenge you face when you have to start a new project? What keeps you inspired?

The biggest challenge I face in starting a new project is overcoming the fear of failure and at the same time, that of perfectionism. Both can stymie the courage to create something great and true to myself. So if I am feeling this fear or inertia, I always tell myself that I can buy another blank canvas, or start again. When I drill that into my mind, I finally feel like I have the freedom to make mistakes, which is when I create my best work – when I am fearless. Life alone keeps me inspired. Of course when something major happens, like the end of a relationship or an illness or the loss of a loved one, it is a catalyst for me to create in order to process my emotions. However, I think that life does not have to be a constant rollercoaster in order to create great work. In fact, some of the best subjects are of everyday life, of simple love, of family, a good conversation, observing a passerby in the street, seeing the patterns trees create in the shadows. Everything can be magical if you stop to live it and observe it.

Is any of your work related to a moment that marked a significant point in your life? Could you share with us the story behind it?

I think that every single piece of work relates to a point in my life. This point could have been a few minute’s experience, like observing my child smiling, or a longer period, like the lingering emotion of grief. I would say that different seasons bring about different focuses and collections. The themes I have delved into for the biggest bodies of work I have created thus far are love, the environment and transitions, namely, Everything I Know About Love, Talking Trash and most recently, my children’s picture book titled The Woof that Went Weng. Everything I Know About Love is an artistic reflection on my experiences of love from childhood all the way until my late twenties, encompassing the different types of love we encounter throughout our lives – familial love, first love, passionate love, heartbreak, grief, marriage. It’s a celebration and mourning all at once.

My favourite artwork in Talking Trash is a giant cup of spilt bubble tea, a very common and well-loved takeaway beverage in Asia. Bubble tea got me thinking about the amount of trash each cup generates, that a moment’s pleasure for us can float about in the ocean for hundreds of years. So I created a sculpture made entirely of plastic bags as well as plastic found in and by the Pacific Ocean, which was ground into pellets, and remoulded. The Woof that Went Weng is a story about language and belonging, what it means to be an outsider at home, which reflects my own transition to Singapore from Taiwan.

You were born in Singapore and moved to the U.K. and Taiwan, you also have a huge knowledge of Chinese culture. What are the main differences and similarities that you have noticed in education and relationships?

This is a big question, where do I start! I want to begin by saying that while there are of course cultural differences in all three places I have lived, what binds us in similarity is the quest for belonging and happiness, even though that may look different to different people. Broadly, what I gained greatly from education in the UK was that it emphasised freedom of thought, critical thinking and creativity. In Singapore, I received a solid foundation in the facts first, and creativity is certainly encouraged, but it feels more benign, not so questioning. I think Taiwanese education is a halfway ground between the UK and Singapore, and there is a level of moral education there too – students are in charge of sweeping their own classrooms each day, for example. Taiwan is a great place to be an artist where many artists cross disciplines. In terms of relationships, I would say that there is a level of trust and openness I have experienced in Taiwan that I have never seen anywhere else in the world, and it exists even amongst total strangers. For example I was once late for a train, and I was running along the pavement dragging my suitcase in tow. A woman stopped her car by the roadside and asked if I wanted a lift to the train station. I got in and kept asking for her number to send her a gift of thanks, but she simply ushered me out of the car at the train station saying I would miss my train if I did not go immediately. That’s it, simple kind gestures, with no agenda.

I don’t think we can generalise about relationships but something that has struck me over and over again is that in the UK we often don’t do business with our friends as we like to separate business and pleasure. However, in both Singapore and Taiwan, especially Taiwan, I have experienced the opposite, that word of mouth recommendations from a friend whose friend has a cake business, a B&B, anything, is the way connections are built.

Does living in different countries influence your way of creating and seeing life?

Absolutely, 100%. I think each move I have made has forced growth in me, like a tree that has branched out in different directions. Because each move forces you out of your comfort zone, and you have to remake and relearn all those basic tools of survival, from a new cuisine to making new friends and understanding new cultures and of course, learning new languages. Even mannerisms. So you unknowingly become an anthropologist, as you’re observing other people all the time, and see things that others might not notice. And that in turn helps your creative endeavours, as you have a point of view that no one else does, or you are able to join the dots about human behaviour in ways that others have not thought about before. I can also meld different cultures, schools of thought and artistic styles into my own artwork. For example, I love using traditional Chinese pen and ink to create artworks in my own style.

You are also a writer and a Chinese to English translator. Could you tell us more about this?

Of course, I would love to! I have taught creative writing for many years and over the past four years, have been writing short stories and poetry, which have won competitions and been published in journals. I like to explore and subvert themes as well as stereotypes, in essence, playing with words in the way I play with paints. I think of writing as an alternative medium with which to express myself. One of my favourite stories is one close to my heart, a story about an unlikely friendship between a domestic worker and woman in Singapore; it was one of the winners of the Writing the City competition and has been turned into a podcast. Domestic workers are part of the fabric of Singaporean society, many households hire one to help with chores and child raising, so they are like family but also employees, and it’s fascinating to me where the lines are drawn and blurred. Right now I have a children’s picture book, a novel and a memoir in the pipeline. I am very excited about my children’s picture book, of which I am the author and illustrator, as I get to combine my love for visual arts with the written word.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2024 is Inspire Inclusion. How can art encourage inclusion and connect individuals? Could you share with us your vision?

Art absolutely can, as long as it is taken down from a pedestal that says it can only exist in high-brow galleries or as an economic transaction, it absolutely can inspire inclusion. My own work, which has focussed on themes of love, feminism and the environment tries to illustrate that the human experiences we have in common far outweighs what we don’t, so I try to build inclusivity through what I am saying with my artwork. I am also part of an art collective called Mama on Palette, a group of mother artists who are changing the world as mothers as well as artists. In the modern day, it’s not easy for a woman to juggle raising a family and stay true to her artistic self. Oftentimes, it is seen as mutually exclusive. So to overturn this idea and be part of such a group that is doing so much to impact the community around them is incredible. Women are unstoppable and if society truly respects this, we can use our strength to connect with others through the arts, education, society, in all aspects of life. The possibilities are endless.

My personal vision for how art can encourage inclusion is to use art to show or tell something in a way that makes us see a situation from a point of view we might not have thought about before, and through this, we can connect to each other on an emotional level rather than be competitors against each other. If we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, whether that is a woman, a child or a domestic worker, it is difficult to hate another because you will try to think what life might be like for that person. Hopefully then, there will be more respect and understanding in society. Last but not least, art enables us to have a deeper understanding of ourselves, and we can radiate this strength outwards – the surer we are of ourselves, the more inclusive we are towards others. If you can connect on a human level of emotions – love, grief, passion, loss, desire – with another person, ultimately, the world becomes more beautiful to live in. That is my hope.

Photos and illustrations courtesy of Amanda Ruiqing Flynn

Last Updated on 2024/03/21

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