With Vicky Woo
I had the pleasure of meeting with Cara To at her eclectic studio space in Prince Edward to talk about her art, her upcoming show and to see what she had in store. Little did I expect that amidst the walls of old books and nostalgic Hong Kong paraphernalia, bathing in the improbably dim light of 6 (or so) arbitrarily chosen paper lanterns and glass chandeliers, we would end up talking about asshole cats and her fiery crush on David Bowie.
The space, a homey haven for young expat creatives, was a welcome shelter after running rather ungracefully through the summer torrential rain. Filled with random finds such as an old leather dentist’s chair, it was something of a street museum. Settling into a cozy corner, we started to talk about her work. Realizing I had not seen many of her animations, she began to show me her past work that had slipped by my (previously-thought) expert interwebular stalking skills. Check them out here.
Your body of work ranges through such a spectrum of techniques and media. From animation to street art. What elements do you like to carry in all of your work?
In all my personal work, I just always want to do something I think is missing out there that I would really like to see. I like to do work that is unexpected. Like in [Le Chat Qui Rit], I missed the look of 3D [animation] that looks like 2D. I like to combine something realistic with something that’s absurd.
(Referring to school project animation Bruin Brood) You can see that I was already obsessed with geometric shapes and origami. I think I have a list in my mind of things I really want to create, like I want to make a cat with eight legs or an origami monster. Yeah, I really wanted to work with a lot of animals. I think they are such characters that bring so much life and personality, compared to something abstract. You see that in a lot that I do.
How different is it working with different materials?
(Referring to The Whale to which I remarked was a lot more colorful than usual) It’s also obvious my style changes through the years and through short periods of time. I really like to work with color, even though you can’t tell from my recent work.
For example in my graffiti, there are money constraints and time constraints. You have to plan a lot for a lot of colors too. Usually I know something will look good in just a certain color and would tell the story better. In my digital paintings, in this one (pictured), I really like the color palette. I actually never liked to use black or white before, I would try to create an effect with only colors. I was obsessed with staring at things and looking at the real colors. This was drawn with pencil and painted on paper, I mainly used to use paper as a canvas (as opposed to her wood and hologram projects now), and then I would experiment on it digitally. It’s a lot easier to play with it digitally and experiment.
How did you fall into studying 3D animation?
Well after studying biochemistry, I was thinking about studying biology. I wanted to be that person who knew everything about animals and plants, knowing all the Latin names and everything. Otherwise I was going to do fashion or illustration. Well then I got into illustration and I did that for a week until I found game design. It was really new in Belgium at the time and I felt that I would be able to learn something that I couldn’t learn anywhere else.
What turned you to street art and graffiti?
This is my first graffiti piece. I went with a friend who was doing stuff next to me and I really wanted to do something like that. So I joined her. I started on a bridge in Amsterdam, sounds so cliché (laughs). I was sketching all the time and I [would think], dude, this is such a waste of my sketching; I just really wanted to do something with them.
So is that when you became Cat Time Biatch?
Yeah, at some point I just started doing a lot of cats. I had to draw really fast and they were quick and pretty easy to do. I brought them to the streets from the animation [Le Chat Qui Rit]. I just did them everywhere and I guess they became my thing.
Is it your favorite animal? Why cats?
I have no clue! I totally forgot why…I used to draw rabbits. It’s my zodiac animal. I would draw rabbits everywhere and then somehow they became asshole cats. I just drew asshole cats everywhere. Yeah cats with assholes. People like the asshole on the cat. It’s like duh! It’s the first thing you see when you see a cat. It’s the asshole! You just can’t miss it.
Cat Time started when I would sign my cats with “CT”, which are my initials, and a friend said: “See you later Cat Time!” And it was just like “CT”! “Cat Time”! This so works! It’s kind of embarrassing though. It’s kind of weird to say, “Hey I’m Cat Time Biatch”.
What is the process you go through to build your imagery? How do you start up with an idea?
It’s all about sketching out the ideas that you have. I think I’ve always had ideas. I’m very image driven. I watched a lot of movies when I was younger because my parents were quite strict and wouldn’t let me go outside to play. I had three other siblings and we all sat at home watching loads and loads of movies. And if we watched any upsetting movies, it upset our parents too; I guess it’s a very typical teenage thing to try to upset your parents. So whenever I watched a movie, after I would draw. Images would just come to mind just according to how I feel.
What do you draw from for inspiration? You mentioned the darkness that comes from heavy metal and Tim Burton of your teenage years for “Drowning in Dreams” in particular.
Yeah I watched a lot of Tim Burton movies. Edward Scissorhands was probably my favorite then but now it’s Big Fish. I also watched a lot of documentaries…like interviews with Johnny Depp (laughs). I also watched a lot of documentaries in the 90s about artists I didn’t know a lot about, like the movie Basquiat; I found Warhol so interesting and he totally stole the show. Well David Bowie was playing him of course; he was totally my first crush. Yeah, while watching the movie Labyrinth, I was like, “Girl you are so stupid not to go for him!”
I was so angry back then. So I would listen to music or movies that would make me…feel something and I would draw those feelings out. I hoped that by doing that again I would become me as a teenager. I do prefer sad and dark things in art than happy things, at this moment; it also helped me draw more seriously. But even if the subject is dark, you can make it happier, kind of like what I do with the strings
For the strings, I was thinking about making connections. When I was studying biochemistry, you had to see the connections in between all your courses and everything you learnt, to see how everything is connected. Then you could understand and build something off of it. Yeah all that chemistry bonding molecule stuff, I really liked to draw them and to see how they move. It also just visually looked beautiful. I’m one of those people who like to see connections in everything, in life.
Also, the faces and things that I draw are very organic and I wanted to give it another dimension by making it geometrical. Yeah I wanted to bring together everything that I’ve learnt. I wanted to especially bring in the 3D [animation] part into my drawings because I didn’t want that to be something that I’ve done and didn’t use anymore. I wanted to bring everything together, my work is all about your past life, combining everything that you’ve done.
I know your parents were originally from Hong Kong so did you feel a strong connection to Hong Kong before impulsively moving here?
Not at all! Well I’ve been here many times before and I didn’t feel a connection at all. Every time we came my family and I would just hang around Sham Shui Po or Mong Kok. We would shop, eat, visit family and that was it. I didn’t know there were so many expats and so much culture. I thought coming here was going to be temporary, like 4 months. I thought my parents had a place here that I could crash at for free; it would have been easiest place to stay while I figured out what I wanted to do next. I thought I wouldn’t like it. I thought Hong Kong was just an old place with conservative Chinese people who would stare at my tattoos and my hair. I had a totally wrong image of Hong Kong. When I got here, I actually realized how cool it was and was like, yeah let’s stay here longer.
Being in Hong Kong brings back so many memories of when I was a kid. I’d see things that make me thing of my mom and my dad and I would feel like I understood them more, where they were coming from, and why they did what they did. It feels like I’m resolving my past, being in Hong Kong. I feel more peaceful and forgiving. My base feels more stable and I can build on from then on.
So what’s next for you? Any exciting projects you would like to do?
I actually have some commissioned murals and I’m really excited that I can do things like that! It’s definitely one of the things I most enjoy doing. Back when I did advertising, I had to do a lot of long hours and work for clients as well. It was hard, when they to said, “I don’t like it” after so much hard work. But with murals, at the end it’s my vision. And nobody could take that away from me.
Mark your calendars for Cara’s upcoming show at Above Second!
“Drowning in Dreams”
Featuring the original works of Cara To
August 9 – August 31
Opening Reception Friday August 9 from 7 – 10 PM
Venue: 31 Eastern St, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong