Esther Geh

botanical artist
Penang, Malaysia

LAST YEAR, WHILE visiting Penang for a short trip, I managed to meet up with botanical artist, Esther Geh, whose photo-realistic art first caught my eye. She has exhibited locally at the Georgetown Festival and Open Studios Penang, as well as internationally, for The Society of Botanical Artists. 
When I reached out, Esther graciously invited me to her home studio where we chatted about her botanical art, as well as an art club that grew into an open studio. 

Also, since I read that Esther was previously trained as a doctor, I was curious to see if coming from a more scientific background had any impact on the way she approached her art. 

I read that you were working as a doctor before you got into painting, can you tell me how this shift came about? 

Actually, I’ve always been drawing since I was little! I remember participating in art competitions when I was in primary school in Kelantan. I’ve always loved drawing, but I chose to pursue medicine and studied overseas to become an anaesthesiologist. Because of my career, it was difficult to find time for art until I moved back to Penang, when I eventually decided to retire and focus on caring for my kids. 

It was then I started spending more time doing art, and together with a friend, we set up the Penang Creative Art Club in 2007. It started purely as a social gathering, hosted by friends in different homes, until the group grew in size and we rented a studio space. That’s how The ArtESpace in Straits Quay came to be in 2012. 

How did having a studio space help the art club and yourself?

Oh it was so happening! When we opened, a few core members ran an art club twice a week, and it also was a shared space where other artists could come to work on their own art pieces during the week. It was a lovely way to get to know people in the local community, especially since the expat community in Penang is always changing. I also helped run art classes for children on the weekend.

More than that, I wanted The ArtESpace to provide a supportive environment and space for artists to commit to working on their art. To me, it was important for them to see that their work is worth putting in the time and effort, and to work towards something together. That’s why the studio was also a small gallery space where we held some group shows.
This sounds so great! Does the art club continue to run today? 

Unfortunately, we made the tough decision to close the studio in 2021. It had been difficult to sustain the space financially, and the pandemic sort of “sealed the deal” for us. Also, I started getting more commission work so it was hard for me to commit the time as well.

The art club still continues, but I’ve taken more of a backseat. They meet without me organising. I must say that the art club was great during the pandemic - we had virtual lunches and art jams over zoom. It encouraged people to make art during the lockdown. 

Let’s focus on you for a bit - why did you choose botanical art? 

Honestly, I’m not so sure. I just know that I am not that good at figures and portraits, and landscapes were fun but a little boring. I’ve tried abstract art but it just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve always liked drawing plants and found myself leaning towards photorealism. There’s a tightness that I like, as well as an attention to detail that addresses my need for control. 

What materials do you use and what is your process like?

My go-to materials are watercolours and I like to work with a limited colour palette. It's my preferred medium, and it took me a few years to figure out that this is what I'm most comfortable with. I've experimented with acrylic pieces in the outdoors but I still prefer the effect and look of a watercolour style.

My pieces can be categorised into two main styles: they are either portraits, which show how the plant grows in nature, or a composite of different subjects, which require more research and experimenting in stitching different angles together.
I started off drawing cut flowers, but I realised I like portraying the plants as they grow. Increasingly, I found that what interests me more are the narratives behind the plants I was painting. I needed to find out more and so my research is pretty extensive. On top of that, my research also includes many photos, colour studies and different compositions which inform my eventual choices.

I’m currently interested in a series on food, focusing mainly on native, decorative plants tied in with the Peranakan and Malaysian tradition. For example, for plants like rubber, pepper or the slipper orchid, they were brought to this part of the world through migration, crossing borders from Sweden to Asia. Did you know that it is the explosion of their popularity that is unfortunately causing their extinction? These are the narratives that truly interest me and drive my botanical art.

 “It’s important for me to ‘do the science’ [of research] first, 
the art can come later.” 

Thank you for sharing about your art in such detail! How has being in Penang been beneficial to growing your art?

Because art comes under tourism and culture in Penang, the local government provides grants and funds quite a number of programmes that help the art scene progress. But I would say that the Penang art community still exists in pockets, and it is a slow but steady process of trying to bridge the gap between those various groups. While it is common for local art students to learn the art forms, there just isn’t enough emphasis on teaching how to market, participate, and how to make a career out of what they're doing. On the other hand, it might help if gallerists and collectors can advise emerging artists on stuff like deadlines and legal issues. 

The Kecik-Kecik group show at Penang Art District is a good example. It held an open call so as to feature as many artists as possible. This helped emerging artists to be seen, and also helped young collectors start their journey without breaking the bank.

Chatting with Esther about her art journey has made me realise the importance of a supportive community. Having like-minded friends and working towards a common goal has made the usually lonesome journey of art more tolerable. It’s also heartening to hear that more is being done to encourage younger, emerging artists in Penang thrive in the long run.

Since our conversation last year, Esther’s botanical art has been exhibited in Gardens by the Bay, Singapore for their Orchid Extravanganza in the Flower Dome, and most recently in Taiwan, at Plantae Documentary 2024 by the Taiwan Association of Botanical Aritsts.  

Esther Geh

Visited May 2023, published February 2024.