“YOU start from the corners of the alphabets because it’s easier but to be honest, there’s really no hard and fast rules. Just follow your instinct. As long as you don’t cut yourself, it’ll be fine,” begins Chua Yi Min, a self-taught wood carving artisan and carpenter from Batu Pahat, Johor, her head bowed in concentration as she meticulously chips away at the hard wood, slowly forming the initials “N.S.T”.
As she continues to calmly explain to me the techniques involved in wood carving inside the cool sanctum of a spacious local cafe, I couldn’t help but notice how the other patrons are gradually averting their attention away from their conversations (and cups of iced coffee) and throwing curious glances in our direction. They eye Chua’s steady and rhythmic strokes on wood with interest.
“Is she conducting a class here?” a lady inquisitively asks from a table next to ours. Without missing a beat, Chua looks up with a smile and answers: “No, but I do conduct workshops from time to time if you like to attend.” Smoothly, she slides out a name card from her bag and hands it over to the excited lady.
WORKING WITH HANDS
The affable artist recalls her very first encounter with wood in the studio she once shared with her previous business partner — an old carpenter who specialises in antiques restoration.
“My mum never allowed me to sit at home and idle my time away. So, during the school holidays when I was only 14, she pushed me to find a job,” recalls Chua, continuing: “It was by chance that I stumbled upon his shop and began learning how to restore antique furniture. I really enjoyed what I did so I decided to continue with this art form to this day.”
Throughout her high school years, Chua was like a protege to the carpenter. She eventually entered into a partnership with him for a little over two years after graduating from her interior design course at Taylor’s University.
Her love for wood grew from that point forth and soon, she found herself wanting to do more than just restoring antiques. “I love working with my hands. I love creating things from nothing. I’ll usually be the one making or repairing stuff in the house,” she confides, eyes twinkling.
After years of just focusing on restoring antiques, Chua decided to pursue her interest seriously. She found a wood carving artisan in Melaka and implored him to take her in as his student. This was to be the start of her journey in wood carving. It took her three days to learn the craft and many months to perfect it.
“When I look back at my first commissioned work, I can’t help but laugh and feel a little embarrassed,” she confides sheepishly.
The granddaughter of Batu Pahat’s long-standing stationery shop owner, BP Tong Seng, Chua is determined to continue this dying art form instead of taking the easy route of inheriting her family’s business.
She adds: “My family is supportive of what I’m doing and they encourage me all the time. That said, I think my dad is a little worried that his little girl is dabbling in something so rough. But I don’t think I’ll ever stop!”
LOVE FOR WOOD
It has been more than a year since this bubbly 26-year-old began her very first wood-carving workshop. She used to conduct them in the humble little studio she shared with her previous business partner, the old carpenter.
“I actually started the classes as a way to advertise and market our carpentry and antiques restoration business,” explains Chua.
To her surprise, her classes began gaining attention on social media, and her contemporary and unique designs garnered her a steady following. Soon, she found herself collaborating with a number of fascinating individuals. These collaborations — which included one with a florist in Kuala Lumpur, an art class in Johor Baru as well as a couple of artsy cafes in Ipoh and Melaka — took her out of her sleepy hometown of Batu Pahat.
“It’s through collaborating with these people that I get the opportunity to diversify my art. For example, the three cute children’s drawings I carved out here are actually real drawings from the art class students,” she shares, pointing to three quirky carvings of a cat and two dogs.
Wood carving is recognised as one of the oldest art forms around. Unfortunately, it’s also a dying art form, with artisans few and far between. This is why Chua feels so strongly about her craft and is driven by the need to continue educating and being an advocate for it.
“I don’t believe in keeping the skills just for myself or keeping it in a niche circle. I want to share it and build on it even though sometimes I may be criticised for diluting it because of my contemporary touches,” she confides, adding: “But I do feel that preserving the skills is more important than keeping to a rigid and old fashioned style.”
DIVERTING FROM TRADITION
This classic art form is not only tedious but also requires a lot of hard work and patience, admits Chua. It takes a lot of time to perfect a carving. “The longest I’ve ever taken with a piece of carving is about three weeks. It was for a Chinese temple prayer tablet,” she reveals.
Even though wood carving isn’t easy, it’s actually a great way to relax. “You tend to lose yourself from the world around you when you’re doing all that repeated chiselling. It’s very therapeutic,” says Chua, grinning broadly.
She goes on to share that a lot of people tend to feel a little daunted at first when faced with this craft-making for the first time. “I had a couple of students who were so nervous when they wielded the carving knife for the first time. But when they began to get the hang of it, they found a lot of joy at chipping away at wood; they didn’t want to stop!”
However, Chua is quick to advise: “The worst thing you can do while carving is to be anxious because that’s when you’ll make the most mistakes or hurt yourself. Even more so if you become kiasu (the feeling of not wanting to lose)!”
To make learning simpler, Chua tells me that each participant would also be given two blocks of wood (one where the chosen design will be carved out, while the other is for practise), a variety of paint colours, wood carving knives (to be returned after class) and small pieces of sand paper (to smoothen the surface once you’re satisfied with your carving).
“The whole idea is that you create something that you can either give away as a gift or keep it for yourself. It’s essentially a different way of preserving your special memories, like your children’s drawings or even your own drawing that you did a long time ago,” explains Chua. Everyone is encouraged to bring their own design so it makes the undertaking more meaningful.
And if students are interested, they can always return to learn more intricate carving methods in the advanced classes, which feature finer texture carving skills.
The hardest form to carve is those minute wooden stamps, shares Chua. “It’s not easy to replicate because of the fine and small details. But it’s also the most satisfying to achieve,” she reveals, as she sands the narrow initials before applying a thick layer of black paint. Once the paint has dried, she sprays on a layer of lacquer to signify the completion of the piece.
Handing me the finished product with a flourish, Chua smiles before concluding: “Every stroke and creation that you see reveals the artist’s personality. And I’m always fascinated by what people choose to carve.”
The wood, she adds, is like a window to the artist’s mind and soul because each individual will always produce something different. “This is what makes this art form so fascinating!” firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information and workshop schedule, visit facebook.com/chuayimin92