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New Scots: Ursula Cheng, visual artist

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The Northern Irish artist on her many inspirations, the rewards of working with local communities and how almost two decades in Scotland have shaped her practice

As told to Olivia Simpson

I grew up in Northern Ireland, but I’ve been in Scotland for 18 years now. Initially, I moved to Edinburgh to study illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. I loved the diverse student body and meeting so many creative people from lots of different countries. I also had the opportunity to study at art school in Boston, Massachusetts, which was tough, both because of the demanding workload and the harsh winter, but I enjoyed it and came on leaps and bounds while I was there.

My dad is from Hong Kong and my mum is Irish, and my work has been influenced by both of these cultures. I am very inspired by lots of Gaelic artwork, such as the patterns in the Book of Kells, as well as Chinese comic books and animation styles that are dominant in pop culture in Hong Kong. A hybridisation of these styles has certainly influenced my visual language; it’s not a conscious thing, it’s just what I’m drawn to.

I am a visual artist who works within socially engaged practices and public art. After art school, I was a creative assistant with a community arts charity, which gave me a lot of experience within participatory arts. I later got into youth work whilst working as a freelance illustrator and eventually, those two paths came together and I started working on more community-focused art projects, sharing my methods of working with others, whether that be print making, digital techniques or spray painting.

I want people to interpret my art in their own way. I find it really beautiful when someone sees something in my art that I haven’t seen. A lot of my art is public art, so it’s very much about the people who use that space. It’s important that they have ownership of it rather than me imposing a strict interpretation of the work.

Working with both young people and adults is very rewarding. I really enjoy showing young people that creativity can be a career path rather than just a hobby, as this is something many of them haven’t considered before. I also love seeing how they approach a new material. They are often very open and instinctive, with no sense of conditioning. I find their raw approach very refreshing.

I like helping adult groups reconnect to their creativity, finding a sense of joy and playfulness. I think that connection is so important for our wellness and that’s something I definitely try to communicate. I also work with a lot of women’s groups and refugee groups, giving them a space to express themselves, and the participants tell me this is an empowering experience which helps build their confidence. It’s also very rewarding for me as I love meeting new people and going into new spaces and new communities.

I’m fortunate to work with organisations whose beliefs align with my own. Recently, I worked with both Articulate and Scottish Refugee Council, both of whom are very inclusive spaces which understand the importance of creative practice for achieving equality. Last year I was also involved with the National Galleries, collaborating on an outreach project inspired by their recent Alberta Whittle exhibition, working alongside a drugs and alcohol recovery group to explore themes of personal narrative and power.

I’m very inspired by the materials I work with and the surfaces I work on. There are constraints when I work outside, for example, or when I’m working with perspex. For a commission I did for Urban Outfitters, I was very inspired by how light passes through perspex and created a layered piece that can be interpreted in a myriad of different ways depending on the perspective.

Art should be out in the world, not confined to galleries. Whether it’s painting murals alongside members of the local community or site specific work, I want my art to be accessible to a whole range of people. One fun project I’ve been involved with over the past five years is helping with the decor at Kelburn Garden Party, taking what I’ve learned about different materials and applying it to this new context. It’s a great site: they’ve got a boat on top of a hill that I’ve worked on for the last couple of years.

People would be surprised to know how much time I spend on my computer, whether that’s researching a new topic I’m exploring with a community group or looking into the price of materials. That being said, I try to keep Fridays as a day for play, when I can paint, experiment with the materials and switch off. For a long time, I found it hard to give myself enough time for rest, but I’ve found it’s very important to demarcate certain days to relax.

My job can be very physical, especially when I’m working on murals. I really have to take time to look after my body. Some jobs can be five or six weeks long, with me going up and down a ladder for over ten hours a day. I make sure I’m going to the gym and swimming lots to get in shape for these kinds of jobs, so I can feel mentally and physically prepared.

I’ve lived in Scotland for most of my adult life and I can feel how my time here has really been imbued into my art. Scotland’s spectacular landscapes, and especially how accessible they are from Glasgow, are so inspiring. I’m fortunate that my work has taken me to lots of remote places to work with isolated communities who have very different lived experiences.

Glasgow and Belfast have a lot of historical similarities, so I feel more connected to home now that I live here compared to when I lived in Edinburgh. It’s also much more affordable, which is a big draw. That being said, I still work a lot in Edinburgh and I love the street art community there.

I have a ‘People Make Glasgow’ sign up in my studio, and it’s certainly true. I love my local area, Govanhill, where I live as well as work. There’s such a diverse community here and a huge number of artists too. I did a mural with young people in the area two years ago and it’s lovely to think of all the people who worked on it and their families walking by it to this day.

My lifestyle picks

Shopping I love spending a Sunday at the Barras market, catching up with pals and browsing stands like Cowpeople, Bonkerz and Colourways. A stop at Fish Ball Revolution for some fresh sui mai (dumplings) is another absolute must-do. The revival of the Barras with young, independent businesses is very exciting.

There are also some great independent shops in and around my neighbourhood too, such as BAM, for vintage clothes and homewares (they sell some of my work, too), and Flowers Vermillion, which sells wonderful homeware and gifts as well as flowers. Another really special place is the Al-Khair shop on Victoria Road. They raise funds to bring relief and support to communities facing crises around the world, and their homemade lemon and Brussels sprout pickle is an absolute treat.

Culture Tramway is one of my favourite places to go for arts and culture. Idols of Mud and Water, by Sydney-based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, is on until 21st April and is a real joy to explore. Cafe Buena Vida is another gem: a cosy little cafe with great coffee and a Spanish-inspired menu, it’s got a DJ booth in the window, where local DJs play live and  broadcast their sets on Radio Buena Vida. Some of my friends have shows on the station, so I love heading down and watching them play.

Food and drink I love Glasgow’s curries: my favourite is Anarkali on Victoria Road, but Pakistani Street Food is also great. I also have to give a big shout out to Kurdish, who were so kind to me and my friend when, after driving for ten hours and arriving back to Glasgow hungry and exhausted, we realised we had no cash to pay for our food, and all the nearby cash machines were broken. They were very understanding and let us pay the next day, and we were so grateful for their generosity. We’re spoiled with good pubs in Glasgow: you’ll often find me at McNeill’s for guitareoke, and Ryan’s Bar is a great recent addition to the southside, with an impressive selection of Irish whiskeys and trad music on Tuesdays. And of course, The Laurieston is iconic with its classic 60s design.

To get inspired It might sound strange, but I find Cathcart Cemetery and the Necropolis to both be really inspiring. They can be really quiet and peaceful and I think there’s something to be said about engaging with those places.

Favourite Scottish destination It’s got to be Shetland for me. It’s very different from the rest of Scotland; the Scandinavian and Nordic influence is so clear. When I visited, I went swimming in a secluded bay and seals swam up really close to me. Once I got out, I noticed a bull orca swimming nearby, and felt like the seals had been warning me! It’s an incredible place.

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