Express My Thoughts in Painting Series, NYC-Based Painter Ellie Kayu Ng

Ellie Kayu Ng is an oil painter based in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently pursuing her MFA degree in The New York Academy of Art. Most of her oil paintings convey her thoughts on the idea of beauty and fashion.

Guilty Pleasure, Oil on Canvas, 2020

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am an oil painter who was born in Hong Kong and finished high school in Vancouver. I’ve always wanted my career to be related to art since I was a little, and my mom has been more than supportive of it. So I moved to New York when I was 17 to study illustration in the School of Visual Arts. During my time there, I have discovered my interest in fine art painting, which brought me to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts at the New York Academy of Art today.

What is your process like? Is there a theme you are currently addressing?

I like to do painting series. I feel like one painting is not enough to express my thoughts. However, I also don’t think making paintings around the same theme throughout my career is a good idea because my thoughts will always evolve; I want them to be like fashion shows with different themes each season. My recent series, which I’ve named “Something Borrowed,” explores the relationships between possession, desire, identity, and fashion through painting borrowed objects. I believe personal experiences will enhance the artwork. So I always borrow the outfits and pieces of jewelry first before starting to make different sketches. I usually construct my painting compositions based on the dresses, instead of sketching a scenario first and then fitting them in later, as I want them to be my main subjects. I’ll then take photo references, make changes, feel the dresses for days, and return them. That’s when I’ll start painting. I love this process because I get to retrieve the feeling of the touch of the dress and my experience of wearing it from my memory when I’m painting. My physical encounter with the dress usually projects back on the canvas even though there are photo references. It’s kind of like J.W. Turner who went out to experience being in a ship in the middle of the storm for the sake of his painting, but mine is just feeling the dresses, which is way safer. 

In your projects, you illustrated an idea of wearing fancy outfits in your own reality, which is very interesting. Is there a message that you would like to deliver?

Rather than trying to deliver a message, I was more like trying to share my experiences, thoughts, and solutions so some viewers can relate and hopefully get inspired. Reasons like social norms, confidence, and finance have stopped me from buying and wearing fancy dresses on an everyday basis. For example, wearing an haute couture in a supermarket on a Sunday afternoon would attract people to stare as if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I decided to borrow the outfits and paint myself and my subjects in it. Doing so instead of really wearing them in public allows me to fulfill my possession fantasy, pursue individualism in art, and also conform to the social norms in reality at the same time. 

What does “community” mean to you?

I think being in a community is sort of an instinct for human beings as it falls into the Love and Belonging category in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid. Having a sense of belonging makes people feel safe, which leads to the existence of social norms; Most of the people, when fulfilled their basic needs, will choose to conform in different regards because they’re afraid to be cast out from their “communities.” Once achieved that need, people would want to move up and be in the “esteem” category in the pyramid to pursue individualism. I think it’s essential to be in a community but also to retain your original thoughts and self, especially for artists. I believe fashion is one of the ways to compromise both, that is also what my last painting series was trying to convey. I decided to compromise by painting myself in the dresses that would be considered weird if I wore them in public on an everyday basis in real life, so I could “stay in my community,” and at the same time pursue individualism through my paintings. 

Do you have a mentor that has influenced your practice during the past few years?

My senior portfolio class teachers in the School of Visual Arts, Thomas Woodruff, and T.M Davy have helped me tremendously. They have given me many useful pieces of advice, and those still apply to me today even though I’ve graduated. I was constantly out of my comfort zone and learning something new under their instructions as they both have given interesting suggestions halfway through my paintings. Hence, they always ended up differently but way better than my original sketches. They’ve encouraged me not to be afraid to make changes and to often think of ways to improve. 

What are you working on right now?

I’ve been doing researches and reading more for my upcoming series on mannequins, which will be for my MFA thesis next year in the New York Academy of Art. I was initially fascinated by its uncanny quality when I saw the exhibition “Machine, Mannequins, and Monsters” in MoMA. I then started to look into the psychology and history behind mannequins and the wonderful stories and movies inspired by it; I’m halfway into the rabbit hole now. I enjoy improving and pushing myself not only technique wise but also the way I think through art. Hence this series is going to be a response to my previous one, a further investigation on my view of fashion, possession, and identity through paintings of mannequins. 

Behind the Door, Oil on Canvas, 2019

text & photo courtesy of Ellie Kayu Ng

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