“Revealing the unknown is always the thing I’m interested in”

SooMin Leong’s practice focuses on the transition from one place to another, both through literal journeys and the many stages that go into making her prints. Each is a story informed by the experience and impression of travelling. We interviewed her about her own journey into printmaking.

Artist:SooMin Leong

HAUSPRINT: Hi SooMin, thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us how you first came to printmaking?

SooMin Leong: It all started when I was studying for my fine art diploma in Malaysia. Painting was my favourite medium, followed by sculpture and then printmaking, so when it came to my final year I didn’t know what to focus on. In the end I ruled out painting because I just hated the tutor and I ruled out sculpture because although I loved working with metal it took a lot of physical effort and my skin reacted badly to the welding process. That left printmaking!

HP: What was your experience?

SooMin: Like everyone else I struggled with the messiness – ink everywhere, on my arms, on my face and my shirt – it was disaster! But I loved the process and really enjoyed using the tools, so after a while I learnt how to overcome the messiness and be better at it.

HP: Which artists inspired you at that time?

SooMin: I went to Singapore to do my degree in fine arts, focusing on printmaking, and my main influence was Escher. It wasn’t so much about the very mathematical structure of his work but the flow – the ambiguous confusing space – the flow of movement that takes your eyes around the space and keeps you going and going. I made a series of prints, each one with about six layers of monotypes with little cardboard letters and thread that I moved around on each layer, playing with composition. I printed one layer, left it to dry overnight and then resoaked the paper the next day so I could make the next layer. The process gave me a way to respond to to the previous layers and place the letters where I wanted them.

HP: What did you do once you had graduated?

SooMin: After my BA I started working at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) set up in the mid 1990s by a man called Kenneth E. Tyler, an American innovator, printer and publisher of fine art prints from New York. It was a great experience – very hard work, but I got to work with lots of different artists who were not printmakers, or had very little experience in printmaking. 

HP: How did that change the printmaking process for you?

SooMin: They wanted to work with artists who were not printmakers because they came up with really creative ideas that challenged the printmakers and papermakers working there. Sometimes the ideas seemed crazy but we figured out ways to overcome problems and make new things. It’s also the ethos that HAUSPRINT has, which is why I was drawn to this studio.

That was my first experience of working with artists and it was very challenging but I got so much from watching how different artists responded to printmaking techniques and what could be done. I worked there for two years but after a while I got tired of following the strict discipline of printmaking, the attention to detail it takes to get each print the same every time, the almost robotic nature of printing an edition perfectly. I found this boring and wanted space to explore more of the human touch in printmaking.

HP: This is a big moment then. You leave Singapore and move to the UK?

SooMin: I didn’t know what I was looking for so I decided to do an MA in Bristol, to  give myself time to think and to explore how printmaking is important to me. I just came for an entirely new life experience – to try to absorb the environment and learn from it – and I started making lots of little prints, sketches, drawings, just trying out different things. I saw that they were all related to layering spaces somehow.

HP: What kinds of things appeared in your work?

SooMin: Architectural elements like doors, windows, paths, stairs – I see them as gateways to the next destination or boundaries, or a space unknown yet to be revealed. What I’m really interested in is not the form of these things but the experience of being in front of these things, such as the anticipation of the surprise behind the door, behind the window, further along the footpath, revealing the unknown. Revealing the unknown is always the thing that I’m interested in. 

HP: How did walking come to be so important to your practice?

SooMin: My tutors suggested maybe I should go for a walk along the Jurassic Coast to have a look at the layers of the land, the rocks, the geographic history, space through time. When I went for my first walk I found the rocks interesting but also the footpaths, the stiles and gates that are unique to the UK – I’d never seen these in other places but seemed to link to my interest in pathways. 

The stiles, gates, signposts and arrows gave me a sense of hope, beacons of brightness – that I was on the right path, that over the stile a new space was revealed and I could continue my journey knowing I was a little closer to my destination. At the same time it was exciting because I didn’t know what was coming next or where I was supposed to go. Sometimes the arrows pointed in different directions but it wasn’t really clear where to go, so I kept walking back and forth across open fields because I couldn’t find my way out. This was very frustrating because I was born and grew up in Kuala Lumpur, a big city, and I had never walked in an open field.

After a while I started looking at the grass for traces of people’s movement and any obvious paths or marks made by people that could guide me in the right direction. When I got to big patches of mud I started to look at the traces of footprints for where it was more accessible to walk. At one point I was following some obvious footprints that almost become a path and then slowly they just disappeared in the middle of the field…

It reminded me of Alice in Wonderland where she encountered this crossroad with lots of confusing signposts and she followed one and then it just disappeared. From all these experiences I realised that I was looking at the traces of human movement and they are a prints made by humans on the land. The nature and these prints change over time with overlays of traces, overlays of footprints that slowly become a path or change the shape of the land over time. 

HP: Like the way you were building up layers in a print?

SooMin: It reminded me of how we usually print from the plate to the final print – things change over time as you overlay different layers of print on top of the first print. The image starts to change, or the plate or block starts to fall apart. Your marks start to become different. It became a process that I actually really enjoyed, like a travelling process. I brought back lots of inspiration, thoughts and photographs from my walks.

HP: How did you manage to bring all this together?

SooMin: I thought about a video artist from Japan who did a residency in Singapore – her name is Tabaimo and her work was one of the most inspiring for my practice because she looked at what we could do with the papermaking and printmaking and then she combined the two together really well to create a body of work that deals with the layering of paper and printmaking, peeling layers off to reveal what’s underneath. 

Tabaimo: wallpaper 06 2009; lithography, screen print, flocking, gampi paper, acrylic paint, watercolor, cutting and pigment stained, burned and layered STPI handmade paper, 86 x 136 x 12 cm

I realised that I’m more interested in the process iself – the whole storytelling process from plate to print, from a to b, the journey itself. I didn’t know how to do that in printmaking techniques so instead of that I used my photographs and I cut out all the so-called gateways – the paths, the windows, the openings – leading to the next photograph underneath and so on and so on, usually ending up with a brick wall or a window or a door.

HP: Why did you decide to work in black and white?

SooMin: At this time I was making works in black and white or quite muted colours because every photograph was taken in a different location with different weather conditions, so the colours and the atmospheres were really different. When I laid them down together in their original colours each layer started to speak a very different language – they started to shout at each other and didn’t come together as a piece. I decided to turn them black and white or reduce the colour and made an entire body of work in this way. The very first piece I made in this way (Path I 2011) is very significant for me and when I’m a bit lost I always come back to this piece of work to remind me where I come from and how I started. It’s almost like my own signpost that puts me back on the right track.

SooMin Leong: Path I 2011; photography and collage

HP: You finished your MA in Bristol in 2011 and moved to London in 2013. How did this change your practice? 

SooMin: I got a job as a full time editioning printmaker but wasn’t sure how to develop my practice. After a while I just thought maybe I should just do something that responded to London and the urban environment. In Bristol I had walked the same footpaths every day but in London I wanted to show the variety of travel options and also the layers of a journey where you have to change your tube, train or bus on TFL (Transport for London) to get somewhere. I took photos of my journeys, which were obviously more concrete with lots of train tracks, stairs and things like that  – they tend to be a lot more chaotic in a way.

SooMin Leong: Outside In 2017; photography and collage

HP: It seems that the idea of journeying and exploration is completely embedded in your work, from the material to the process to the physical construction. Would you talk us through these layers?

SooMin: I have a piece inspired by a walk in the Lake District and you can see the layers. For me it’s very important to have space in between each photograph because they signify the space when I travel from one place to the other so from a to b, the next destination revealing the unknown. That is the physical space that I enjoy and find very exciting. With these collage photographs, in between each photograph there are pieces of foam core stacked up that I camouflage and blend in to make the journey smoother, so your eye isn’t distracted by something white or black that doesn’t belong.

Also in my job I am working with different artists everyday and they inspire me too, even if they are not very experimental. When I work on their prints it reminds me how fun printmaking can be, so I started using my old images to make a few polymer plates and printed them just to see what happened. I was photographing three dimensional collage photographs that I made to take me back again into the process and the journey.

HP: How did your relationship with your work change over this time?

SooMin: The original pieces were made in 2011 but I only started photographing them about seven years later, so when I looked at the work it reminded vaguely of the original journey but not quite the same as before – it wasn’t as vivid. I realised that no matter how much you enjoy something – in this case the journey – the memory of it fades over time, changes, and your brain interprets it in a different way so it becomes something different. I thought “I’ll make these as a memory, as a journey in my memory instead of the actual journey”. I made polymer etchings and started burning holes in the flat images, burning the edges. I just let the burn spread itself across the work until it stopped burning.  I see them as if when I was walking along the footpath I was leaving my traces on the land and nature changes the shape of it as the fire burns.

I think at this point I was a bit bored by printmaking – partly because a lot of the artists I was working with only wanted to use polymer etching (a photographic process using UV light to burn an image into a light sensitive emulsion on a metal plate), but I had pushed the technique as far as I could in my work. I was much more interested in a process which involved layers and layers of printing so the finished product is very different from where it started.

HP: Is this when your work became even more three-dimensional?

SooMin: I saw the potential for my work to take on a book form, where you could flip the pages to reveal the next page, the next story. I burned the pages, treating each as a gateway, and I let the burn spread itself where it wanted to go. I was inspired by contour lines on a map and also the footpaths and traces left on the pages by the fire. Some had lots of little drawings and text on them, like a map that goes round and round, so you encounter it as a tiny closed square that you can open up and eventually you can see it as a ball and you can flip it any way round. There are arrows pointing in different directions to tell you where to go but they just go round and round and don’t lead you anywhere.

SooMin Leong: books, 2019

HP: They are very beautiful, fragile pieces that evoke lost moments or dreams somehow – how do you feel when you are making them?

SooMin: I tend to make the confusing maps when I just want my brain to wander – it’s actually quite hypnotizing in a way and meditative.

SooMin Leong: maps, 2019

HP: And then comes the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, which must have had quite a big impact on you as your practice is so informed by physical travelling?

SooMin: When COVID happened I couldn’t go out much to take my pictures from different places so the whole travelling journey was very different. But it was also quite expensive to make those photographic collages so the situation forced me to rethink my practice. 

HP: How did your work at Paupers Press play into your thinking?

SooMin: After the lockdowns I was able to go back into the studio and work. I do finishing work there, so I will touch up the prints and clean them. I have to pay attention to the ink layers and how this changes the colours to determine what I need to do to make all prints in an edition look exactly the same. I find the changes of colour when things are overlaying very inspiring – the translucence of the colour layers and the way the image changes – because each artist uses colour differently. Tom Hammick is a painter who uses colour, and layers of colours, in a very interesting way so his woodblocks tend to have lots of layers. I like the way he and other artists use the medium as image rather than trying to make ‘a print’. 

HP: Having that access to art and artists when museums and galleries were closed must have been quite inspiring.

SooMin: It made me want to do more printmaking but I didn’t want to spend too much money on copper plates or expensive materials. I remember in early 2020 I went to the Picasso exhibition at the Royal Academy and there was one text panel that explained that during World War II materials were limited so Picasso started to explore what he could find in his studio, his home and surroundings. He started using paper, newspaper, whatever there was, and I found that really inspiring and fun at the same time. 

HP: How did seeing the Picasso exhibition affect your own work?

SooMin: I started making collagraphs on sheets of acrylic based on a few photographs I took in the Lake District. I used carborundum and drypoint, so they were a lot more chunky and painterly than the photographs. I thought, yes, I’ll play around with textures and overlay with inks and just see what happens, because that’s what I most enjoy while working on other people’s work and that’s also the thing that I really enjoy about printmaking – the journey from plate to print. 

SooMin Leong: The Wanderer 2020, carborundum and drypoint

HP: What’s your process now?

SooMin: I usually use a drawing as a guideline for colour separation and the layers on different plates, the order of colours and which goes next. I enjoy thinking about the colours laying on top of each other and changing the colours to make them speak to each other. Most of the time I don’t know how many plates I will need so I look at my test prints and respond to them. If I’m not very happy then I’ll make another plate until I am happy.

HP: It’s fascinating how your process echoes your experience of walking and remembering – we may go wrong along the way, but it’s ok to wander. Can you say more about this connection?

SooMin: I made a piece that reminded me of when I was walking along a coastal path and there had been a landslide where some of the path had collapsed so I had to find my way around it to get to the gate, the next stile, and I looked around and saw the traces of where other people had walked. The original work was one of my collaged photographs and I made a collagraph from it, that helped recall the memory of that experience, of the walk, but now I had a slightly different interpretation of it so I highlighted the right path to take among all the possible paths.

I’ve been going through a lot of my old photographs to see what kind of memory they bring back. There’s one I took when I went to visit my friend Simon in Cornwall of his little building – which is actually his studio. When I see somewhere like this it always makes me wonder what’s behind the door and when we were approaching Simon’s place that anticipation was really strong, even though I didn’t know it was his studio. That was the feeling that I wanted to highlight. 

HP:  How has the COVID pandemic affected your practice?

SooMin: There is something about COVID and the lockdowns that have made me look at things differently and unconsciously I think that’s coming into my work. 

When I first made a print of Simon’s studio the colours were quite similar to others I was making at the time, with that bright fresh green. The plates for this image were three pieces of black mountboard that I found in my studio that happened to be just the size I wanted, so I decided to try using them, even though it was quite hard to see what I was doing on the black. When it came to the inking the colour shined so vibrantly on the black it made me want to make something I’d never tried before – a dark print.

I made another dark print when I was pet-sitting at a friend’s place looking out the bedroom window. During the day I could see more activity but the night was more interesting in a way because I could stare into the dark for a long time but see less. I could see lights from the clouds, lights coming through behind the trees and it was a very different scene from daytime. I took a photograph of the scene at evening, the most intriguing time to me, and next I made a drawing in daylight so that I could think about colour and colour separation for the print. 

I like the fact that it’s dark everywhere but there is something that is glowing – it’s the anticipation and the hope coming through.

Find more of SooMin’s work at https://soominleong.weebly.com/.

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