Never Let Go of Who You Are

“Don’t dilute your own way of creating.”

Red Hong Yi


When she was eight, Malaysian artist Red Hong Yi entered an art competition where children were required to draw their favorite animal. Having won a similar competition before, Red was confident that her drawing of an Easter bunny would steal the show.

But to her surprise, she didn’t even get an honorable mention.

Feeling hurt, she approached one of the judges of the competition and asked why her drawing wasn’t picked.

“Your art did not make me feel,” he said. “You can draw but your bunny looks like something I have seen before on a birthday card.”

Pointing to a peculiar drawing that barely resembled a shark and nearly tattered with pencil marks, he told her, “See the drawing of the shark over there? I can tell that kid likes sharks.”

This piece of advice would only reverberate through the years as Red matured as an artist.

As a child, Red always loved art. This was mostly inspired by her mother, who had a print of a Picasso painting in her room. The painting, depicting a woman using just a single line, had a lasting impression in Red. Besides that, her mother also had a book on Norman Rockwell’s artwork, which she would flip through with Red. She was amazed by the humorous ways in which Rockwell portrayed American culture.

But Red was also interested in science, particularly physics and mathematics. And this largely had to do with her father’s influence, as he worked as a structural engineer. Every now and then, he would carry out science experiments with Red, such as rubbing a ruler with wool to observe static electricity.

When it came time to deciding on a career path, Red and her parents believed that studying art in university wasn’t promising enough. And so, a degree in architecture seemed like the way to go, considering her dual interest in art and science.

Fast-forward to her 25th birthday, she came to a place where she felt hopelessly lost. There was a looming sense of dread as she entered her late twenties. And on that sleepless night, laying in bed, Red panicked about growing older and the little time she had left to do the things she really wanted to do.

While her mid-twenties-crisis is laughable to her now, it was utterly overwhelming then. She knew that she wanted to create art. It was all she wanted to do. But she was too afraid. The thought of professionally sharing her art was too embarrassing, and seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream. She had no portfolio. She had last painted in high school for an exam. And she had last sketched when she was 19, after going through her first heartbreak, and she was too embarrassed to show the sketch to anyone.

Feeling her life’s moments ticking away, she forced herself to come up with a plan. She would move to Shanghai from Melbourne, where she was working, and she would create art inspired by her new environment, and she would share her art with the world, no matter how terrible she thought they were. She would keep creating, and she would one day have her own art exhibition.

She decided that her lack of formal training in art would not be an obstacle, and she would instead make the most out of her training as an architect. And this would make her the unique artist that she is — one who tells stories of her personal experiences, of her culture and heritage, and of social issues, using unconventional materials.   

In this newfound frame of mind, her past experiences finally seemed to gel together. The artist and the architect in her were one. As she said, “To me, art is about self-expression, while architecture is about problem-solving.” 

Being an architect trained her in planning, designing and building structures to scale. And naturally, her training cultivated in her an astute sensitivity towards materials and textures. Whenever she encountered an object that she found interesting, she would touch or knock on it, curious to know how it could be applied to a structure.

As an artist, this led her to explore unconventional materials for her artwork. She became accustomed to using everyday items such as teabags, eggshells, socks, and dried leaves in her artwork.

She would typically base her artwork on photographs, as this would inform her planning and other steps in the creative process. As she explained, “Photographs are my blueprints; objects are my bricks, concrete, and steel bars. The absence of a brush — a tool I am familiar with — forces me to both reimagine the way an object can be used and look at objects around me from a different perspective. It allows me to express my art in a personal way that feels natural and intrinsic to me by planning, calculating, building, and experimenting with scale and texture.”

Sometimes, she would leave her artwork on streets and hide someplace nearby, so that she could observe how well people engaged with them as they passed by.

Her first viral artwork was a painting of Chinese NBA player, Yao Ming, which she made using a basketball as a brush. She documented the entire process on her YouTube channel. And as her online following grew, so did her number of commissions. 

Among her most well-known commissions were from actor Jackie Chan, which was for a portrait of himself using 64,000 chopsticks, as well as from TIME Magazine, which was for an artwork resembling the world map, set on fire to reflect the ongoing climate crisis.

If there’s one thing that Red’s story teaches us, it’s that as an artist, you must never negate who you are. It’s easy to compare your personal experiences and your resources with those of others, thinking that you are lost, that you are at a disadvantage because your story is different. 

The thing is, sameness is only an illusion.

Everyone is blessed differently. Everyone undergoes different journeys. Everyone has different sets of strengths and limitations. Everyone has different sets of cards that they are dealt with. And that’s what makes art, art. That’s what makes art so meaningful. Because if we were all the same, what would be the point of creating art at all?

For Red, she stopped feeling lost once she embraced herself for who she is — an architect who creates art. 

Likewise, it’s worth thinking back on how your personal experiences and skills, no matter how pointless they may seem to you, could be leveraged to create art that is uniquely your own. 

Understand though, that this isn’t as easy as it sounds. It can feel painfully embarrassing. It can feel like you’re not knowing what you’re doing. It can feel like an endless cycle of doubting yourself and your work. But this only indicates that you’re up to something meaningful. 

Red has gone through her own vicious cycles of self-doubt, especially when she was starting out. She often wondered if her art was considered “real art”, as she created them primarily for herself, not expecting so many people to pay attention to them.

“It may be easy to assume that my productivity has been smooth-sailing, and that inspiration strikes me often,” she said. “The truth is, there have been many moments of fear and doubt. In my earlier years, I often worried if my art was good or bad, and if people could tell that I was feeling lost. I wish I had someone to shake me then and tell me that I can do things differently, and that it is a strength to embed my own thoughts, ideas, and techniques into my artwork, even if they seemed bizarre or strange.”

Yet, she’s still here, creating beautiful art and sharing them with the world. “Anything can be art,” she advised. “See your surroundings with fresh eyes. You can use anything you have around you.”

There are plenty of artists in the world. And then there’s you.

Never let go of who you are. 

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