Surrounded by fresh prints and projects-in-progress, Shan Shan Lim sits before us in her sunny home studio, with an air of ease and an animatedly serene presence. Immediately, we get the sense that this is a woman who knows exactly who she is, or at the very least, she is someone comfortable with each twist and turn within herself, feeling at home in every shifting landscape.
“I was mixing colors and just started painting my emotions – I like this and I feel like this. I realized then that I could paint whatever I wanted.”
Looking back on her childhood, Shan Shan describes a supportive home where artistic exploration was encouraged and cultivated. Her late mother was a graphic designer, and her father was an architect, so art supplies were never far from her reach. She recalls getting her hands on anything she could, spending many an afternoon drawing on the backs of old Chinese calendars at her grandfather’s house. A turning point came when she was about 10 years old. Fully enraptured by the spontaneity of drawing, she distanced herself from the still life renderings learned in art class and began to entertain more abstract expressions. “I was mixing colors and just started painting my emotions – I like this and I feel like this. I realized then that I could paint whatever I wanted.”
Shan Shan is wearing Geta Slider
Shan Shan’s art comes in many forms – paintings, digital prints, sketches, textiles and collaborative efforts which see her branching into apparel, accessories and ceramics. Through each endeavor and personal series, she draws from her primary bank of inspiration – the transience of nature – and plays with images of plant and flora. While her art is mostly abstract and illustrative, there is a deliberateness behind each piece, every hue and shape serving as an extension of an emotion or a period in her life. Crisp lines and flat expanses of color are the markers of her work. Shan Shan employs a variety of mediums, her vast portfolio filled with softer, digital pieces as well as vibrantly textured paintings, using acrylic, watercolor or gouache.
Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Shan Shan made the decision to enroll in a boarding school in India at the age of 14. Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, the school promised adventure and change, which young Shan Shan felt determined to taste. “I knew that it would change the course of my life and that it was something I needed to do. It wasn’t easy convincing my parents, but they understood.”
It was here that she became enamored with the dazzling colors of the natural environment, as well as the magical vibrancy of the local culture and cultures of her schoolmates who were from every corner of the globe. Outside of curriculum hours, Shan Shan and her friends spent their days picking seasonal nuts and fruit, watching movies on projectors under the open starry sky, and brewing tea with herbs from the garden and water from the rivers. Her fascination for and her immersion in nature easily flowed into her artwork, leading to the development of her signature aesthetic.
After completing boarding school in India, Shan Shan went straight to Central Saint Martins in London, following the footsteps of her mother who had also studied art in London decades before. Cold, industrial and fast paced, the city presented a stark contrast from the backdrop of her formative years. At art school, Shan Shan was encouraged to curate colors, becoming sensitive and selective in her palette choices. Washes of blues, grays and cooler tones became a mainstay in her work, reflecting the dreariness of the big city, while in her prior work she had tended to wield every color of the rainbow.
Shan Shan is wearing Janus Sandal
These transitions in circumstance and movement in her living environment have long ignited a creative fire within Shan Shan. She embraces the cycle of growth and impermanence in the natural world and her personal life and she infuses this into her artwork, borrowing motifs from nature to represent the various emotions precipitated by transience and change.
“People talk about falling in love, but I don’t want to fall in love, I want to rise with you and rise in love.”
Shan Shan shows us a recent series titled Prints of May, illustrating the blossoming of romance she experienced with her husband, beginning with A Brief Encounter and coming to a Buddying, lasting partnership. Overlapping colors and forms represent the unity and harmony between partners, and brilliant splays of color symbolize the exhilaration of Rising in Love. As Shan Shan puts it, “People talk about falling in love, but I don’t want to fall in love, I want to rise with you and rise in love.”
Prints of May by Shan Shan Lim.
Shan Shan’s current body of work is made up of puzzle pieces from the various places she has called home. Her Southeast Asian heritage gifted her with an eye for colors and natural motifs, while her time in London inspired her clean, minimalistic touch. As she moves forward with her future pursuits and projects, Shan Shan aims to build a middle ground, where traditional techniques and modern innovations can converge and thrive. “Our generation, where do we fit in?” asks Shan Shan, “Are we constantly moving into some other era? Are we aiming to be this futuristic ideal? Or are we going to merge both worlds?”
As an individual and as an artist, Shan Shan is mindful of sustainability in each aspect of her life. Her present and future ventures involve going back to nature and creating her own paint using natural pigments such as turmeric and coffee. Shan Shan speaks of the importance of being conscious about the materials she uses and the timelessness of the pieces she creates. “If I never have to buy a tube of paint again, I won’t.”
Shan Shan is wearing Geta Toe Thong
Shan Shan describes her personal style as feminine, feeling most at ease in skirts and dresses, but purposefully hasn’t purchased new clothes in over a year. Instead, she prefers wearing her mother’s old dresses, upcycling, or buying vintage and thrift where necessary. Even on her wedding day, Shan Shan donned her mother’s traditional Chinese wedding suit, forgoing a modern gown.
Nestled amongst some of Shan Shan’s recent works is a sketch by her mother, a rough black and white rendering of a garden in London. As much as Shan Shan welcomes growth and change, we observe that she has firm roots in where she came from. With a grounded understanding of her own identity, she is all the more empowered as she adapts, shifts and expands her reach, blessing us with portraits of our hearts in the shape of nature’s muses.
Which pair of Yoke & Theam shoes is your favorite ?
I’ve been wearing the Black River Unisex Slider for a while now and I would say these are my favourite! They’re comfortable and easy to match, I don’t have to think twice before leaving the house with them on.
How would you style the Black River Unisex Slider?
I would style them with a one-coloured oversized dress or a casual plain top with loose trousers. Comfort is definitely a key ingredient in my personal style.
What are 3 essential footwear items that compliment your lifestyle and personal style?
- Anklets for bare feet days! I wear a pair of silver anklets gifted to me on my wedding day, and I never take them off. The bells often remind me to look at the earth which lot of us have forgotten to do.
- Monk Strap Leather Shoes to dress up. This was my go-to shoe in London for any occasion.
- A minimal pair of low heel slip-ons are perfect for meeting clients, looking professional yet chic.
How would you upcycle an old pair of shoes?
I like the idea of embroidery and hand-painted elements to uplift an old pair of shoes. What better way to renew your love for a shoe than to pour time into beautifying it!
As a special treat, we asked Shan Shan to add her flourish to the River Unisex Slider.
Here’s what she had to say about the process.
“I've embraced a bold and vibrant colour palette in my work lately. For these monocoloured sliders to reflect my signature design style, I added a splash of colour and spontaneity. As this is a one-off project, I didn't hold back and just had some fun with it. I cut faux leather into irregular shapes and decorated them using acrylic ink pens.”
Text: Billie Blue Blackstone