Reality and fiction make great bedfellows in Esther Goh’s work. Woven with many different layers, her work often falls into the realms of magic realism and dark humor. Esther is an independent illustrator and graphic designer based in Singapore.
Esther has worked with agencies like AKQA in Shanghai and Kinetic in Singapore before she started operating independently. She now participates in a lot of group exhibitions and collaborates with different brands. Her work has been recognized by platforms like Cannes Lions, D&AD and The One Show, and by many creative publications as well.
Before any further ado, we’ll just let Esther tell us more about herself and her work through this interview.
Tell us something about your childhood.
I’ve spent my entire life in Singapore. I was raised in a conservative family where we honored traditions by going on yearly Chinese New Year visitations, celebrating holidays, and never missing church on Sundays. Being close to some of our relatives meant that I always got to hang out with my cousins, and as an only child, it was a lot of fun. I went to an all-girls school for ten years, during which my interest in art was fostered.
My parents gave me all they could, not only in terms of material comforts but in terms of their time as well. They constantly encouraged creativity. My mother made it a point to keep my old kiddie drawings safely and my dad still has one of my illustrations displayed on his desk. We’re all basically like best friends.
What influenced you creatively when you were growing up?
I remember having a lot of toys. You know how toys were in the 90s – kitschy and very fabulous. There were these 2D animated cartoons, collectible cards and famous characters’ merchandise. I think being exposed to such a wide variety of these things introduced me to the idea of what was cute and desirable, reinforcing positive feelings of creating things with my hands.
In particular, there was an interactive computer game that allowed you to drag ingredients into a bowl, mix them, bake pastries and decorate them after. I was intrigued to no end, and years later in design school, I ended up creating a flash website involving similar mechanics.
When did you realize you wanted to be an illustrator and designer?
The web was a huge thing for me as a teenager, and so was digital art and photography. I used to run several blogs which I would design templates for, while also dabbling in CSS and HTML. At the same time, I was making these ridiculous GIFs too. When it came to tertiary education, it only made sense to choose a course that combines all of my interests.
Did you have a formal training in illustration/design?
I studied Interactive Media Design. Through the foundation lessons and the rest of the curriculum, I became more aware of the different fields of design and the design process, which differs greatly from fine arts. The objectivity and target audience become a crucial part of the work, and you’d also have to take into consideration a tonne of other things like typography, design rules and planning for production.
In particular, there was an interactive computer game that allowed you to drag ingredients into a bowl, mix it, bake pastries and decorate them after. I was intrigued to no end, and years later in design school, I ended up creating a flash website involving similar mechanics.
You have worked in AKQA and Kinetic Singapore. Tell us about those experiences.
Being an intern at AKQA Shanghai, there was a lot of fumbling about. I got to see for the first time how a multinational digital agency operates. But everyone was nice and extremely patient with me. I used to just absorb everything like a sponge, and enjoy the food.
I have fond memories of Kinetic’s crew, the ideation sessions, the actual creative work, the late nights (and subsequently having supper at the coffeeshop next door), and the crazy farewell parties.
Could you pick up one personal project and tell us briefly about its making?
It would be ‘Tsunami’ which I illustrated to commemorate the second year anniversary of the 3/11 Tohoku disaster. We’d all read the news about the aftermath and the nuclear evacuation zone where pets, wild animals and livestock were mostly left to die, if not for the NPOs stepping in to provide help. That inspired me to portray these animals in rainbow hues, symbolizing the radiation that has washed over them, and applying a marquee tool effect in the shape of a Japanese flag. If you look closely, there’s also a bird with an extra leg.
How do you balance between personal projects and commercial work?
I guess I’m still figuring it out.
What has been the most challenging point in your life so far?
That would have to be the period after leaving my first job at Kinetic. I wanted to get into illustration but didn’t have any concrete plans. It took quite a lot of experimentation to expand on my illustration style, get to know the market, and grasp the ins and outs of the business.
Also, being an independent illustrator and having the ability to make all the creative and financial decisions will probably always be tough, but it is extremely rewarding as well.
What are some of things/observations that have deeply inspired you and your work over the years?
Lots of design-related things inspire me – interiors, food styling, set design, lifestyle products, beautiful packaging and so on.
I’ve found that my interest in darker subject matters has led me to create art as a reaction to social issues and the real world. It’s like taking on the role of an observer while exploring my feelings through the same piece, from within and without. Often I make references to pop culture, which is so prevalent in our everyday lives due to its huge influence on our perspectives and attitudes.
The approach I generally take is of satire and surrealism, sneaking in layers of irony and injecting a little dark humor because it’s great to not have to take art so seriously all the time. For that reason, I feel it is also likely to elicit a response from the viewer, generate discussion and actually lead them to think about the topic.
How important are recognitions and awards to you?
Awards definitely don’t define my career, but they certainly open up new opportunities. The awards I’ve won so far were under the guidance of my bosses and mentors at Kinetic, without whom I wouldn’t be where I am today. The feeling of having your work recognized internationally is amazing. And when I have more people looking at my work, I feel a need to constantly reevaluate the new art I’m producing and maintain the standard.
Being an independent illustrator and having the ability to make all the creative and financial decisions will probably always be tough, but it is extremely rewarding as well.
If you had to describe your work to someone who has never seen it, how will you describe it?
Colorful and surreal, with a pinch of humor.
How does Singapore inspire you and your work?
Generally, I love the Singapore that we came to know while growing up, and I love the thought of being able to share those same memories with everyone else. Not so much now though because culturally, it feels like we’re all over the place and it’s simply too crowded for comfort.
Singapore did inspire some of my personal favourites like the series about the Merlion on his day off and the illustration on dying trades.
Who are some of the artists/designers/filmmakers/
Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg, Danny Boyle, David Fincher, Rene Magritte, David Hockney, Micah Lidberg, Mario Hugo, Team Macho, Sachin Teng, Pon-chan, Yu Nagaba, Lilli Carré, Cinta Vidal, Andrea Wan, and the list goes on.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a key visual for a literary festival in Singapore and planning to revive some old projects that I’ve been putting on hold.
The approach I generally take is of satire and surrealism, sneaking in layers of irony and injecting a little dark humor because it’s great to not have to take art so seriously all the time.
FEATURED IMAGE CAPTION:
All the images are artworks by Esther Goh.©
Update (6th June): The spelling of ado was written as adieu in the introductory paragraph. We apologize for the mistake.