Esther Geh is a self-taught artist from Penang who specialises in botanical paintings. She previously studied Medicine at the University of Nottingham before obtaining her Masters in Anesthesiology from the National University of Singapore. Following her Medical career based primarily overseas, Esther’s return to Malaysia marked the start of her formal career in art. Her pieces have been featured in solo exhibitions, such as at WAF Art Gallery in Straits Quay, Penang as well as at a group exhibition for the International Women’s Day Art Exhibition in Putrajaya. Her painting ‘Durians’ was also exhibited at the Society of Botanical Artists’ annual exhibition in London.
How did you transition from your degree in Medicine to your current career in Art?
I always loved art, but I grew up in a generation where a career in Art was generally looked down upon. Back then, people usually had to pursue a career in Medicine, Law, Engineering or Accounting. I studied Medicine at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. I then started working full time as an Anesthesiologist in Penang before moving to Singapore. Upon returning to Malaysia, my husband had to travel a lot for work and we decided that I should be at home more to take care of our children. By working part time, I was able to be more involved in my children’s lives by going to parent-teacher meetings and all that. I ended up meeting another parent who was also very interested in art but also had to make it more of a hobby due to her previous career in the Australian Navy. Initially, we would just meet over coffee in each other’s kitchens and draw. It ended up growing from that into an art club for any parents that shared our interest. At one point, we got too big to fit into any of our homes so I rented this place as my studio and as a meeting place for the art club. My own painting career ended up growing from there.
Could you please walk us through a typical day at work for you?
I don’t really have a ‘normal’ work day. My typical day starts with getting my son to school in the morning before having breakfast with my husband. After that, I either go to my studio or work from home; it usually depends on whether I have bigger projects or if I have an art club meeting on the day. I work throughout the day and (try to) remember to take a break for lunch. I work up until I need to pick my son up from school in the afternoon and then I try to spend time with my family after that.
In art, there is no right and wrong. Anyone can be an artist; it’s just about putting in the time and effort.
What do you think you get from your occupation specifically compared to any other line of work?
First of all, I am very fortunate that art does not have to be a financial career for me, unlike many artists that have to make a living through their art. I am lucky that I get to learn from every piece that I paint and enjoy the satisfaction of painting a piece that I am proud of. Through the club, I get to meet so many interesting people from different walks of life.
Could you tell us more about the work you do with students/youth?
My friend’s daughter was studying for her IGCSE Art examination and was struggling so I agreed to mentor her. At first, it was difficult to explain to her how I interpreted a painting and the skills needed to create such paintings so that she could learn those skills herself. But over time, it was enjoyable to see how she grew as an artist and how her skills developed. I also had open studio sessions for my friends’ children. It was really just a fun opportunity for them to come in and be creative. I don’t really believe in running classes in a set manner where everyone does the same thing; I would much rather the kids themselves tell me what they would like to do.
A pet peeve I have with art and the community is that other people don’t realise how much time and effort goes into creating art .
What message do you try to share through your art?
I don’t have a specific message because my art primarily involves botanical paintings. I don’t necessarily go for pretty things but more of things that are considered unusual in terms of shapes and colours. In cases where I am commissioned to do specific paintings, my client will tell me which plant they would like, but the style and composition is still up to me. I try to keep close to the scientific, botanical approach to ensure that my paintings are accurate. However, I still maintain the view that in art, there is no right and wrong. Anyone can be an artist; it’s just about putting in the time and effort. How you interpret it is completely up to you. Sometimes, people ask me if I can teach them to paint like me. I don’t think this is possible because yes I can teach you the techniques that I use but at the end of the day, how you use them will be unique to you.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
I think a pet peeve I have with art and the community is that other people don’t realise how much time and effort goes into creating art, especially all the planning and sketching that goes on weeks beforehand. I think this is just made worse when people try to haggle for a lower price since most of the time we’re mostly just trying to cover our cost. You can’t really put a cost on time since we don’t have fixed working hours.
Sometimes, the more events you attend and the more art galleries you visit, the more stunning pieces of art you end up seeing so you start doubting your abilities.
Has there ever been a time where you have felt like giving up on art?
All the time! Starting a new piece is hard. The worst part is when you’re ⅓ of the way through and feel like the painting isn’t going anywhere so you just want to throw the whole thing away. But when you persevere, it will get better. Everytime I see someone else’s art, I wonder when my work will be that good. Sometimes, the more events you attend and the more art galleries you visit, the more stunning pieces of art you end up seeing so you start doubting your abilities. This can be disheartening, but you have to keep pushing yourself because every painting is a learning opportunity and an opportunity to get better.