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In the Longing for Home series, NOST sits down to chat with people who inspire us to live fully and more consciously.
2020 has been a year where many of us embrace working from home as a new routine. But for many creative entrepreneurs like Joanne Lim, founder of calligraphy studio Letter J Supply, the home has been a space of work for years. As a forerunner in Singapore’s calligraphy scene before calligraphy workshops exploded in vogue, we ask how she stays inspired over 6 years of practice? To Joanne, art is a reflection of an artist’s inner life. She shares her personal journey of discovering her own identity, overcoming self-doubt and finding freedom in life and in her craft.
Why did you start The Letter J Supply?
I was very interested in calligraphy but at that point in time, there were no courses for it in Singapore. I was very drawn to calligraphy. Different art forms speak to you in different ways, and not all art forms resonate as deeply. When I went to New York for a month-long break, I had an opportunity to learn calligraphy and it changed the course of my life.
After I returned from the US, I took the plunge to start something new - a calligraphy-led stationery brand. I rented a cheap space at Shaw Tower with my friends, giving myself one year to try it out. The first event I did was for Valentines’ Day. I remember setting up a garden and using the calligraphy that I picked up in New York.
Since then, things took off, and there were a lot of ups and downs along the way.
There were many times I felt like a failure. I think all entrepreneurs and creatives have days where we feel we could have done much more in life. But when I think about how I am actually making a living with very simple tools - a brush, pen and paper - it’s quite amazing.
Throughout the past six years, what have been some of the highlights and challenges in your journey?
Doing events such as craft pop-ups is certainly a highlight. I enjoy the energy of putting something together. Once, we held an event at a huge space in Orchard and the atmosphere was really great; that was one of the biggest highlights. However, there have been more valley lows than highs in my journey.
Thinking back, there were many times I felt like a failure. I think all entrepreneurs and creatives have days where we feel we could have done much more in life. But when I think about how I am actually making a living with very simple tools - a brush, pen and paper - it’s quite amazing.
Other valleys include the very fact that I was doing it on my own. Facing self-doubt is a constant struggle. There was a lot of learning along the way - dealing with many mistakes and worrying about what people thought of me. My biggest struggle was feeling like in the calligraphy world, you need to achieve a certain standard of precision in your work. I felt like I was always caught in that regard, and that I was never good enough. My journey was one of discovering who I really am and learning to express that as an artist, as a human.
What allows you to overcome the struggle of self-doubt?
I think it was a three-year journey of a lot of inner soul work. I like watching video interviews of artists. It made me realize that a lot of them go through a lot in their lives to get to where they are; it’s not a short journey. The process builds something in them that is seen in their work. The art you produce reveals who you are.
That helped me to see a different perspective of inner healing, of finding my identity and celebrating it. In this social media age, our world can be very small depending on who we choose to look at or follow. You feel like you become conditioned to be like what you see on social media.
On the flip-side, we also have access to artists and inspiration from anywhere in the world. We can have insights into the lives of creatives in places that we will never get to visit physically. That helped me to see things from a broader perspective - what you choose to see and surround yourself with can shape who you become. Our minds can be as small or as big as we want, constrained or free, depending on what we choose to feed our eyes on.
Did this journey of learning more about accepting yourself change the way you create art?
Yes, definitely. I feel like art reveals who you are. In the beginning, it was very free and I think there was nothing holding me down. Yet at the same time I felt that my work looked very shallow, so I told God that I really wanted more depth in my work. That might actually have been a really risky prayer! [laughs] In order for depth to come through in my work, I needed to go through deep stuff. I think your life journey is something that cannot be faked. Sometimes when you look at artists’ work, it may look like it was merely done in two strokes, but it is actually an expression of what they carry inside.
How would you describe your work?
I hope people will feel a sense of life and freedom when they look at my work. Something that is not constrained, something that feels a bit more human.
How do you set up a conducive, creative space for yourself?
I find that physical space is quite important. Having a clean space, at least a clean table surface, really helps. During circuit breaker, when I had to work from home, I used a chest of drawers from my studio as my working table so I could work standing up. I also tried to make sure that the work surface is clean, which helps me to have a better flow. I bought a lamp which keeps my workspace well-lit.
As much as community is about acceptance, it's also where you feel safe to give and receive hard truths.
Does running your own business feel quite solitary at times?
I think that community is very important. If you are all by yourself, you can go a bit crazy. Over the years, I’ve tried sharing workspaces with various friends and collaborators.
I’ve learnt that in order to build a community, you do need to be stable as a business and person, so that you give out of an overflow. Having a community where you receive from some older than you and give to some younger than you is a healthy way to grow. It's ok to evolve, to let relationships blossom or fade naturally. As much as community is about acceptance, it's also where you feel safe to give and receive hard truths.
When you run calligraphy workshops, it’s also a way to interact more with others. How has that been for you?
When I first started doing workshops, I think I was actually quite hard on people. I’ve changed over the years. I realize that people usually come for workshops because it’s a form of therapy, not because they really want to perfect a hardcore skill. There is something about calligraphy that makes people open up, and I get to see a different side of those who attend my workshops. At the end of the workshops, I would let them choose at random a handwritten piece of artwork. It’s quite amazing when they pick one, read it and say that it really speaks to them. It is these interactions that make workshops so meaningful for me.
You were involved in a pro-bono project where you styled the interiors of a halfway home called Dream Home. What led you to take up the project?
I really like bringing spaces to life. There is something about bringing beauty to spaces that I really like. That is my passion. I feel that words and artwork can bring life to a space that is bare. It can change the entire environment.
What are some of your dreams?
What I really hope to do through calligraphy or other mediums is to help people receive healing through art. To create a space where art and therapy intersect.
Find out more about Letter J Supply’s beautiful paper goods and workshops at www.theletterjsupply.com