Winnie Cheng (ERYN)

visual artist
Penang, Malaysia

Last May, when in Penang for a few days, I arranged to meet up with Winnie Cheng, a visual artist who goes by the artist persona, ERYN. In her home studio, Winnie was generous with her time as she spoke to me about her art process as well as how she found her way in Penang. She spoke about her work with such care and it was insightful to see how various themes surface in her work and manifest in different mediums. 

Q: How would you describe your art?

I create detailed compositions combining pen and ink drawings, watercolour and acrylic painting with papercut techniques. I also seem to be inclined to more symmetrical drawings at the moment. Before, they were more straightforward scenes. While paper cutting is known to be from China, I would say that my style is more European.

I used to be known for a black and white drawing style, with fantasy elements. But I went off on a tangent with my ‘Strange Botanicals’ series which featured a durian-headed character. (I guess it was a more human figure that made it easy to relate to?) Now I'm back to focusing on black and white line drawings.

Q: Are there themes or motifs that you return to in your work?

My current focus seems to be masked subjects. Before this I used to be all about animals and hybrid creatures, but now I'm drawn to humans with masks. Perhaps I am slowly trying to understand more about myself?

Funny enough, quite a number of people have commented that my work seems to have a recurring religious or biblical theme, but actually I'm buddhist! I draw from ideas about the cycle of life and impermanence. Life and death, a bit of morbidity there but I like to consider contrasting elements. I also like stories that are driven by identity and the human psyche. 

Q: I read that you didn’t start your art journey in Penang. How was it coming here and how has settling here impacted your art?

You’re right - I studied in Canada and did my Masters in Brunei before moving to Penang in 2015. I found it difficult to do my style of art in Brunei after I graduated because it was more conservative. That said, adjusting to the art scene here in Penang was not that easy either. I’d say it took me about half a year to settle in. I joined an art residency program which gave me the time and space to develop my layered papercut technique and series.

This was a turning point for me because one of my art pieces ended up winning the Gold Award under the Emerging Artist category at the UOB Painting of the Year Competition in 2015. After that, my work was featured in multiple shows from 2015 to 2018.
From my personal experience, participating in residencies was helpful as it connected me to more people and also provided time, space and guidance for me to focus on improving my skills, gaining exposure and firming up a clearer vision about my art. 

To be honest, in Penang, there is enough going on from week to week. You can go out and see art and meet people in the art community. It’s generally small (compared to KL) and more collector-based. 

As I watched Winnie work, carefully carving out her designs, she explained that her art pieces evolve as she works on them. “The background usually comes first, and then the story slowly appears.”

She mentions being inspired by stories from the horror and fantasy genre, citing H.P. Lovecraft, Edward Gorey and Stephen King as influences for her work. I can’t help but find myself drawn to her intricate, symmetrical drawings that almost border on the morbid, and require more than a quick glance. 
Since our meeting last May, Winnie has bravely and openly shared on her Instagram account that her art has been put on pause as she’s been prioritising her mental health. She seems to be slowly but surely getting back to art-making, and I’m hoping that her art will be a meditative way for her to express herself and her experience on her own terms.

Winnie Cheng (ERYN)


Visited May 2023, published May 2024.