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August 8, 2022 —

Meet the Maker: Anita Cheung of Neets

'Elevated playfulness' is the inspiration behind Canadian artist and illustrator Anita Cheung of Neets' prints and artwork. She tells us about her process, how she approaches marketing and why her young niece influenced her vocation.
Anita Cheung of Neets laying out her paper prints in her Vancouver studio
Neets creating paper print work inside her Vancouver studio
Shelley Welti
91 Magazine online content editor,

Photography

Amy Teixeira
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Hi Anita, why and when did you decide to start your business? 

It’s definitely been a bit of a journey! I officially started selling my artwork in June of 2021. Prior to that, I was primarily working with businesses and doing design/ commission work since 2018.  I also worked on some children’s books in the last few years – but never anything direct to consumers, as one might say.

Since I didn’t go to art school, my decision to call myself an artist didn’t come easily. My style isn’t ‘realistic’ nor ‘abstract’ so it often felt like there wasn’t a place for my work as an adult. I often share the story of how my niece gave me the courage to own my artistic style. She’s five years old now but since she was born, I’ve been babysitting her once a week. One activity we’ve always liked to do together is draw and I can still remember the look of amazement in her eyes when she saw my little doodles. It’s funny to think that without her encouragement (and frankly, validation, since we all know kids are the harshest critics), I wouldn’t be where I am today. 

Since then, I’ve leaned into my artwork style and have coined the term ‘elevated playfulness’. This idea that wonder and play doesn’t have to stop as an adult is at the heart of everything I do. 

Neets creating paper print work inside her Vancouver studio

That’s so lovely! What had you done previously?

In the past (and still presently), I do freelance creative work with small and medium sized businesses. Some of this may include custom illustrations, but also brand identity design, website design and development, and art direction. Before that, I was in the wellness industry for seven years– teaching yoga and meditation. I actually owned a meditation studio at one point!

How would you describe the brand’s ethos?

I had someone describe my artwork as the juxtaposition of ‘cute’ with a ‘weighted seriousness and importance’,  and I kind of love that description. I’ve never really thought too much about a brand ethos (other than to stay vehemently authentic to myself, in all my facets and forms), but if I had to pick one, I would say this feels like a comfortable fit.  It reminds me how, perhaps unintentionally, I’ve mirrored childhood in my art. While we tend to think of kids as adorable little humans, they can also be so intuitive and wise, just packaged in an adorable frame.

Neets creating paper print work inside her Vancouver studio

Print by Neets on scandi inspired minimal studio

Can you tell us a little about the processes used to create your work?

Since I work a lot with cut paper, I often plan my artwork with a fair amount of structure beforehand. I’ll sketch an idea with pen or pencil, and indicate what aspects of the drawing will be cut paper, paint, etc. If I’m creating entirely with cut paper, I’ll often create a painted or mixed media draft beforehand to test colour combinations and work out any kinks. I do all of this because the paper I use (washi paper) is handmade and I don’t want to waste any bit of it. 

How does working with paper inspire your creations?

Working with paper is limiting in the most wonderful way. Unlike paint, we can’t mix the perfect colour or shade of paper so we must work within its boundaries. Additionally, because paper doesn’t “blend” (as paint or pastels would), we must titrate the image to its simplest, core shapes and form, with just enough detail to tell the story, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming.

To me, working with paper is an homage to slow living. Just like when chefs make a gourmet meal from farm to table ingredients, I recognise that the paper was handmade, its fibres grown on a farm cultivated by the hands of many workers. It took a lot for it to get here in my hands and it’s an honour to shape it into artwork.

Neets creating paper print work inside her Vancouver studio

AmyTeixeiraPhotography Anita 35 scaled

Which is your most popular product? 

My most popular prints are ones that were released, as a limited edition, for the Lunar New Year. They featured cut paper animals (based on each zodiac sign) along with a little description of each sign. Folks were buying it for themselves, for loved ones as gifts; they were definitely a hot commodity! As for why, my best guess is that, similar to astrology, everyone enjoys the feeling of reading and identifying with their zodiac and of course, everyone likes to feel seen.

Difficult question…do you have a favourite?

I am so proud of the prints from my latest collection, though if I had to pick just one, I would say The Garden is my favourite. I love the details, the colours, and the lush layers. The piece was inspired by gardens I’ve visited around the world (from Morocco to Mexico and beyond) and when I look at it, it gives me that same peaceful feeling of relief I get whenever I’m surrounded by thoughtfully designed plantings.

Neets creating paper print work inside her Vancouver studio

Neets creating paper print work inside her Vancouver studio

Your ‘On Her Shoulders’ collection is inspired by female artists in history, what was the idea behind this?  

One day, while flipping through a school book with my (then) 4 year old niece, I noticed that most of the famous artists presented were male and white. It got me thinking: where were the women? The people of colour? What stories weren’t being told?

What I found was that, as with most things; it wasn’t due to a lack of talent from women, people of colour, or people of other marginalised identities. It was (surprise,surprise) a result of the structural systems that acted as gatekeepers throughout history: who got to attend schools and show their work in galleries?  Who made the distinction of what counts as art? Who decided what is worth remembering? 

I am a big believer in ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and so, for the sake of my preschool-aged niece, and for all of us big kids, I decided to do a little bit of digging and research to create a collection that highlighted the amazing female artists in history. 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I often go into the day with a plan of what I will work on that day. Whether that’s a day devoted to client work, or a day devoted to working on the business; I’m a bit of a planner and I’ve realised that if I don’t put it in my calendar, it doesn’t get done. As such, when I have an idea (for a collection or a project), I’ll often work back from when I want to release it and pre-schedule days to focus on it. 

With that said, there is a lot of flexibility in when things get done during the day. I feel fortunate that I don’t often have to “clock in” at any particular time. Currently, it’s summer so the days are much longer here in Vancouver. I’m often up at 7:30AM and start my day by moving my body, playing Duolingo (I’m trying to learn Spanish), watering my balcony garden, and if I’m feeling particularly unmoored or tired, 10 minutes of meditation and/or creating a quick sketch or study. From there, I’ll make my morning matcha latte, and settle into the work for the day. 

Anita Cheung placing playful Neets print on gallery wall

Neets creating paper print work inside her Vancouver studio

How does your location inspire you?

Living in Vancouver, we get two glorious months of summer and then ten months of rain. It can sometimes feel really heavy once November rolls around so I think that as a result, I create what I crave:  bright neutrals, spring pastels, and whimsy. At the same time, what artist isn’t inspired by nature? I feel lucky to have the forest, mountains, and ocean so close by as they are an endless source of calm and inspiration. 

How do you approach PR and marketing?

Oh, this is a tough one! As I mentioned, I’m a big planner so I definitely have what I call a Master Marketing Board in my Notion app (full of people I want to partner with, publications I want to be in, content ideas, etc.); however, present-me definitely doesn’t execute exactly how past-me intended. There are so many days where I’m just too tired at the end of the day to engage on social media and share an Instagram post, or attempt to make a Reel. I also used to get really bummed out whenever I pitched to businesses or publishers and received nothing but radio silence back.

These days, I’m trying to reframe my mindset around marketing and PR. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so if I can devote a little bit of time to it each week, amazing. While Instagram can be a quick boost of morale, I’m investing more time into my newsletters. A mentor of mine once described Instagram as a raging house party, and newsletters as taking someone out to a coffee date. It’s a quieter space where people have more attention.  As someone who was always more into the side conversations at house parties, I’m all for newsletters.  I send three out a month themed around Wonder, Warmth, and Delight. They’re each totally different (ranging from recipes and stories to fun facts and downloads), but they all feed into my (and my brand’s) values. And at the end of the day, that’s all marketing is– sharing your values and the way you see the world with others in hopes of building relationships with like-minded people.

Anita Cheung of Neets laying out her paper prints in her Vancouver studio

Anita Cheung inside her Neets Vancouver minimal studio

That’s a wonderful way of looking at it! If you were to share any words of wisdom with readers looking to start a creative business, what would you say?

Find your people, and be your own biggest fan. It can be an intense world out there for creatives which is why finding a supportive community is really key and believing in ourselves is so important. Also, if I can say just one more thing – be selective with whom you share your ideas. Not everyone will “get” you and your work, and that’s OK. It isn’t for everyone and sometimes, even certain friends or family members may not be the right audience or in the right mindset for our work and that’s OK. New ideas need to be nurtured so that they may bloom and this is why it’s important to have people in your life who can provide that support and care. 

Finally, what’s been your highlight so far?

This year, I had the opportunity to go to the LA Times Book Festival with my publisher and tour some classrooms with the children’s book I illustrated. It was definitely a surreal moment and I am so grateful for the doors my artwork has opened for me!

QUICKFIRE QUESTIONS

Describe your work in three words: Playful, friendly, textured. 

What are your creating rituals? I always have a beverage at hand and some good podcasts. Other than that, I don’t have too many rituals during the process of creation. For me- the “off” time is where the magic happens. It’s just as important to me that when I’m not making art, I’m doing other things that inspire me and bring a sense of joy into my life. I often get my best ideas in these moments.

Tea or Coffee? Tea! A matcha oat latte to be exact. 

Mountains or Sea? Sea (though living in Vancouver, I’m lucky to not have to pick between the two)

Night Owl or Early Bird? Neither? I love my sleep and am generally unproductive in both the late evening and early mornings. Though if I had to pick one, I suppose night owl. 

I wish someone had told me.. It’s OK to change your mind.

www.neets.art

@hi.neets

 

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