Healing through Art with Ly Yeow

Ly Yeow started drawing after experiencing heartbreak — she would go to a café for a cup of coffee and spend her days drawing. It was a way for her to heal and find clarity of mind. Since then, Ly has established herself as an artist who experiments with different mediums — watercolour, resin, even fibre. You may have seen her work in spaces like Jewel Café, Ritz Carlton, Merely Ice Cream, and Starbucks.

On top of her work as an artist and illustrator, Ly is also a passionate teacher who runs her own art school, Lyttle Space, from her home. We caught up with Ly to learn more about what inspires her work, and how she incorporates art and drawing into her daily self-care routine.

Ly beams for our camera at her home.

Why did you start Lyttle Space?

I used to be an illustrator but knew I didn't want to do that for a lifetime. In the past, I was teaching kids at home and doing private classes in their homes for about four years. It really grew in the fourth year and it was a stretch of my energy. I travelled by train and bus every day for about four to five hours each day, so I was physically tired all the time.

Even though I was always tired, teaching remained the only job I enjoyed and found meaningful. When my husband and I were planning our future, I already knew I wanted to settle down and have a space so I could teach on my own terms. My husband runs a business — an ice cream shop — so we knew from experience rental is crazy expensive. When I wanted to make Lyttle Space happen, I made a conscious decision to not rent outside as renting a commercial space would mean changing my business model to make ends meet. I wanted to make sure I would be able to teach the way I want to, so I chose to run Lyttle Space from my home.

How long have you been running Lyttle Space for?

We are very new! Think we’re about one year and four months old. We’re growing slowly but I’m satisfied with our growth. My approach to teaching is a little different and a lot of parents don't really understand this. They send their kids to art class expecting a finished product when their kids come home.

With Lyttle Space, creativity is all about the process, not the result. When kids come to my class, they do more process work. A lot of times, the work is unfinished because it is basically their "draft". To a writer, The writing process to a writer may mean a lot of unfinished drafts. Likewise, when kids draw or make things with me here, it really is about learning the process of making — exploring the thought behind the artwork. That's the spirit I want to encourage here.

Ly at her work desk.

Many of your illustrations feature women exploring and being themselves in the sea. Can you share the inspiration behind your work?

I'm actually really scared of the water. I went surfing once when I was younger and had a traumatic experience with drowning so I get really anxious whenever I am in a body of water. I only started drawing the sea after my experience in Lanyu (蘭嶼), a small island in Taiwan. For the longest time, I wasn't able to step into the sea. Ever since Lanyu, I’ve slowly made progress. There’s a love for the sea that I can’t quite explain, but there’s also a deep fear. I guess my drawings have been a way for me to create that scenario [of being in the sea].  

Lanyu is a small island in the southern tip of Taiwan. The whole circumference of the island is probably only about 42 km! Everywhere you go, you see the sea before you and the mountain behind you. Being there was the closest connection I have ever had with the sea.

My first time there was actually during an artist exchange programme. I was there to teach art and given free accommodation for ten weeks. The concept of money only started to be normalised in Lanyu about 15, 16 years ago; here was no concept of money before then. In the past, they would trade resources instead. I have had so many amazing encounters on the island. There was this three year-old girl, the daughter of a family who runs a breakfast shop on top of a small hill. While playing by herself, she smiled really widely and said to me, “hen piao liang ah" (how beautiful). So I asked her, "What's so beautiful?". Then she told me, "Look, the sky and the scenery are so pretty." I was taken aback because I had never heard anyone in Singapore, let alone a kid, just sit and admire nature.

I was really touched by how the people of Lanyu protect and care for their environment. The residents really push for recycling and have a ground-up initiative to protect the island because it is the land they live on. Every snorkeling and scuba driver instructor on the island will tell you not to use sunblock when you enter the sea as they want to protect the coral reefs. All the plastic cups at the breakfast shop I visited would be washed so they can be reused.

I also met a lady who runs a bed-and-breakfast. She was brainstorming the different ways she could promote her business, so I suggested she make stickers. Her response was, "But every sticker that I produce will result in another piece of trash when it’s torn off. I can't do that." I literally went, "What?! Nobody in Singapore would even think of that." And she told me, "But this is my home and I need to take care of it. If I do what everyone is doing, then, what will happen to my land?"

From that day, I stopped making a lot of things for sale. I only make things that I find meaning in, like postcards and art prints! But I only make these in very small quantities as I don't want to contribute to more waste. If I can't stop something, at the very least, I don't want to contribute to it! Any business that makes money by selling things needs to adopt more sustainable practices instead of just producing more waste.

You’ve talked about how you started doing art as self-care but it has now become your bread and butter. How do you define self-care and what does your self-care routine consist of?

I'm actually trying to get back into [self-care]. It's been neglected for a while! I started drawing because I liked a boy who didn’t like me. Before I had my first exhibition when I was really poor and didn't have a job I would spend $5 to get a cup of coffee at Yahava KoffeeWorks and just draw. I drew every day. That was part of my healing journey of letting go of my feelings for someone. Through that process, even when life was a little tough, I felt happy because I was able to draw every day. In that way, art was equivalent to self-care for me.

Ever since my husband and I moved to our home, it's been more difficult to draw on a daily basis. When I'm home and supposedly resting, I can never really rest as there is always another thing to do. When I have the extra time in the morning, I will work on a couple pieces… and that's my happy time! I’ve also started weaving. It’s very tactile and something I do just for myself.

What's your favourite thing to do during time off?

Ideally, I'll go for a swim if I have time off. There's also a café that I really like a lot, Grassroots Book Room, which reminds me of Taiwan. You may also find me at East Coast Park. But, most of the time, you really won't find me anywhere else but home.

My rest mode every day is to watch senseless videos. I run my own business so my brain is consistently in work mode. It's not something I can put a stop to. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I will jump out of bed because I have a good idea for class and need to write it down. I’ve also recently started weaving, which I find very calming.

Ly in the midst of painting.

We hear you love animals as much as we do! Tell us about your cats.

I love cats. Both of our cats are strays. Socks showed up at my husband's ice cream shop. We fed her and one day she disappeared and only returned months after. We never thought we would adopt a cat but she is really special. She went through two pregnancies. After her second pregnancy, she was living on Prinsep street. One night, after work, we were walking by and heard a really heartbreaking meow. We didn't notice at first because it was so dark, but then we saw that one of her kittens was run over by a car. After that we decided to take her home.

We adopted a second cat, Heibi, because we wanted Socks to have company. Initially, they fought a lot and didn't gel at all. They have very different personalities. Socks is wary but Heibi is very curious. Heibi will be the first to check out new places and things… and the scent she leaves behind must give Socks the assurance that it's safe because I often find Socks in places she'd never usually go to these days. They definitely complement each other very well!

Ly cuddling with Heibi, one of her two cats.

Pillow Talk is an interview series done in collaboration with Public Culture, an editorial experience studio that believes in connection over communication. This feature was photographed by Christopher Wong for Sunday Bedding and Public Culture.