It was 240Z! Yvonne Cheng chimes in without hesitation as longtime friend and fellow artist Sharon Twigg-Smith pauses to remember the model of Cheng’s car back in the day. Those were in the ’80s, when the two were running Art Access—a company they had started together that sold art to a variety of institutions around town. Back then, art galleries were thriving and Cheng’s works depicting Polynesian women, clad in intricately patterned batik on batik recently debuted, and almost overnight, were on every art enthusiast’s wish list.
A batik-making class at Bishop Museum answered the question and moved her trajectory to “sought-after artist” soon enough. She took her craft to a different medium—murals. “Everybody was doing textile design,” recalls Cheng. “I always liked figures so [I thought] ‘I’m going to do figures in batik.’”
And Cheng’s full-figured women portray beauty in a powerful way. The inspiration came from something somewhat unexpected: a lu‘au.
“One day, when I was still married, we went to a lu‘au, and that’s where I saw the Hawaiian women, standing up in mu‘umu‘us and dancing,” Cheng recounts. “And I was just fascinated because they were absolutely beautiful, and that’s what made me think, you don’t have to have a model’s figure— and up to this day, when you go to any lu‘au, to anywhere where there are hula dancers, I mean the tutus—they are so beautiful, and they have these hands— the way their hands move, it’s so lithe and graceful …”
That was more than four decades ago. Today, walk into any major building in downtown Honolulu, or check-in to one of Hawai‘i’s top hotels, the chances of someone coming across one Cheng’s prized murals or paintings are highly probable. And if you happen to have one of her acrylics-on-canvas or ink drawings in your possession, consider yourself fortunate for her art truly is one-of-a-kind.
In Cheng’s mind, the batik part of her art was almost innate: “I grew up in Indonesia, [known for] the batiks, the sarongs, and all of that, but I just do a different thing with it.”
But Twigg-Smith also points out a key element in Cheng’s work: “She has this eye for details for patterns.” And if one takes a closer look at the kinds of batik that Cheng “dresses” her women in, one will soon realize that Twigg-Smith’s assessment is spot-on. Her use of stripes, triangles, alternating zigzags and more are as captivating as the figures wearing them, if not more so. Even someone not fully immersed in the local art scene would likely be able to recognize Cheng’s art. Even of they didn’t know artist, her trademark batik—or the portrayal of it—in any art form is quite discernible. Her latest medium is brush and ink on paper—handmade rice paper from Japan, which she has to special order. The delicate paper, although makes a beautiful backdrop, has its own challenges. “Even if I make a very light pencil sketch … it doesn’t always work, and once it doesn’t work then that’s it,” Cheng says.
A quick glance around her outdoor studio in Manoa tells me that Cheng hasn’t slowed down all that much since her days zipping around town in fast cars with Twigg-Smith. Tubs of paint are stacked one on top of another on shelves; brushes of assorted sizes are placed into an old plastic container once carrying Greek yogurt, much like pens in a mug; and in what was once an old staple box, a stash of graphite crayons in varying lengths is stored. A finished painting rests on one side of the studio, while a half-drawn sketch sits on the other. A large ink-on-paper is framed and ready to be shipped to its eager, soon-to-be owner. Farther out, another table holds several smaller canvases—some finished, some in the process, still others in their initial stages. Commissions are still coming in; and Cheng still continues to paint/draw for the sheer joy it brings her. Would things be different had she not left her native country? Most definitely. “I couldn’t have ended up in a better place. I found the life that I really wanted that I could never have in Indonesia.”