Unravelled stories. Meet: Pey Chi

We had the pleasure of chatting with the whimsical Pey Chi in her animated Coburg studio. Filled to the brim with bubbly caricatures, and a medley of patterns, Pey Chi’s studio is a visual herald of her vivid art, which takes form through multidimensional vehicles. Both a ceramicist and a tattoo artist, Pey Chi’s work centres the faces of google-eyed characters in their various moods, inviting connection between the animate and inanimate. You can meet her spirited creations in The Social Studio store, where we stock her ceramics and her printed bags, in collaboration with Yes Buddy!

TSS: Most of your ceramics are branded with expressive faces. When creating them, are you inspired by people in your life?

Pey Chi: I see them less like reflections of me and my own life, and more like cartoon characters existing in their own right. I’m definitely inspired by cartoons. In art school, we were meant to gather all this inspiration, and it’s what feeds into our work. So, you start off emanating all the work that you’re inspired by, and eventually form an amalgamation of it all, developing your own flair. So, in that way, I feel like my work is not directly self-reflective, but instead a mixture of everything I love. I make these little characters, and they’re their own things — not representations of me, but pieces of me. 

TSS: When you begin a piece, do you usually have a fixed idea of what you want it to be?

Pey Chi: Not always. I feel like with ceramics you have to go with the flow because you'll start with one goal and the final product will be so far from your original idea, especially if I've not made something in a while. I'll try to make a cup, but it won't work, and then it'll become a bowl. I end up turning it into something else completely. A big part of working with ceramics is being prepared for a piece to turn out a little different, because there are just so many points along the way that can mess it up. This keeps the work exciting though, and gives the pieces a life of their own, like they’re choosing what they want to be.

TSS: You're quite open about your experience with Topical Steroid Withdrawal. How has TSW effected your creative career, and your current creative process?

Pey Chi: TSW really effected every facet of my life for the last eight years, and still plays into the way in which I create. A lot of people don’t realise how much it impacts your day to day existence. Especially when I first began experiencing it, it just wasn’t spoken about, so I feel like it’s important to be open about it as a way to educate others, and to show that yeah, my skin isn’t perceived as beautiful or as “good skin” … whatever that means … and that’s okay!

I feel like TSW has been a big factor in making me who I am. It informs my creative practice. For example, the method I use to make my ceramic pieces. I’ve never thrown on a wheel, I don’t think my skin can take it. Wheel throwing is really wet, and would probably end up drying my hands out even more, so I primarily hand-build when I’m making ceramics - which my skin does fine with - so I guess in that way - the actual method that I’ve chosen is directly related to my chronic illness - my wrinkly, red, swollen hands are creating my art.

My uni experience changed. I got sick at 21 and had to take some time off and then do uni part time. This meant that I just couldn’t do any international exchange programs like I wanted to do. The first four years with TSW were the hardest, and changed my perception of my future. I had to kind of reevaluate a lot of ideas I had about where I would be in my 20s. I can’t really hold a traditional 9-5 job, as it all tires me out pretty quickly. So, working for myself and setting my own boundaries has been pretty good. Travelling wasn’t as easy as it used to be, I had to think about going into another environment with a different climate, different water temperature, and maybe not having my little home comforts that I needed. I’ve travelled back to Malaysia a couple of times now, so that’s progress! My health has definitely improved a lot though!

TSS: Coming from a Malaysian and Chinese heritage, do you find traces of your culture in your creative work?

Pey Chi: Growing up — like a lot of diaspora kids — I feel like I tried to distance myself from my culture. I didn’t want to be the girl eating the stinky food in the corridor. Even though my school had a large Asian population, I didn’t want to be “one of them”. I kind of just wanted to be like my white Australian friends - I distinctly remember speaking to one of my friends about a family trip we had planned to Malaysia, and I referred to it as ‘visiting home’. She was like, “What do you mean home? Your home is here in Australia”. She didn’t understand it. That was probably one of the distinct times that I felt different - she couldn’t understand that home could be two separate places, thousands of kilometres away from each other.

It took and is taking me a long time to unpack the internalised racism that I carried for a lot of my life. It’s only now in my late twenties that I am coming to understand the hurt and grief I caused myself and my family and therefore my freakin’ ancestors too. 

I’m really looking forward to being back in Malaysia more often – with my culture, my language. I feel like going back with this new perspective allows me to see things in a different way, the beauty of my family and where I’ve come from. I remember being embarrassed by all the mismatched colours in my house - the green brooms, pink and purple baskets, green plastic food covers - nothing matched. For the longest time, I was so ashamed of it - I wanted a nice neutral colour house (lol). But now see and love all the colour - and I guess that sort of feeds back into my work. 

TSS: Your creations take both 2D and 3D form, ranging from hand-poked tattoos to ceramics. Which form did you start with?

Pey Chi: I started with drawings. Drawing in 2D was where it all began, and my art mostly took form in prints and t-shirts. I studied textile design as a print major, so the two-dimensional world was what I was most familiar with, having only had experience making flat creations. It wasn’t until my brother took a ceramics class while I was sick. I couldn’t do it at the time, but I sure was jealous!  When I was better, I ended up taking a class myself, and at first it was really hard to transform my two-dimensional world into a three-dimensional form, but I eventually found a language that worked for me. I loved drawing, but I felt like it had to either be a print, or a t-shirt, or a card.

I started tattooing recently - which of course was a lonely lockdown activity…and it was a hobby that stuck. After hand-poking on myself, I went on to give my sister a tattoo, and then my neighbour (who’s a wonderful hair stylist @scam_stylist, check her out). It’s always fun trying a new type of medium and I like that my silly art can go on anyone’s skin and has the potential to empower them, like it did for me. 

TSS: What can we expect from Pey Chi in the future?

Pey Chi: I think my next chapter is a lot weirder, I wanna make wackier work. I feel like a lot of my work has been more cute and cuddly, and I’m trying to move away from that… (but I still somehow always do cute things oopz). I also really wanna head to Malaysia to make some art. I have no idea what will come of it, but it is something that I need to do. There’s been a process of reconnecting with my culture brewing in me for a while, and I feel like this would be like a little quarter to half cherry on top of the - getting over internalised racism etc. - sundae. I need to go back to heal that part of me and maybe it’ll show through my art too