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Everyday artist: Hong Yi Red hot after Yao Ming portrait

Fiona Ren

Thu Jun 07 2012

Red Hong Yi

KOREAN chili paste, coffee dregs, socks and bamboo sticks. Ordinary items to you. Art supplies to Youtube sensation and former international student Red, Hong Yi.

If someone told Hong Yi six months ago that her out-of-the-gallery art pieces were going to make her a Youtube sensation, she wouldn’t have believed it.

The 25-year-old who goes by the moniker Red (because Hong sounds like the word ‘red’ in Mandarin) shot to fame after her portrait of Chinese basketballer Yao Ming, painted using only a basketball, went viral.

The Youtube video of the painting hit 10,000 views in its first week. It hit the 50,000 mark within hours of the second week, after being featured on the tech website Gizmodo.

Then other media channels like the Huffington Post, NBC and ABC News picked up story. And just like that, Red became an internet art sensation.

Hong Yi was born in Sabah, Malaysia, but studied in Melbourne, picking the city for its “artsy-ness”. She now lives and works as an architect in Shanghai.

When she’s not designing buildings, she’s using unconventional tools to create art. It’s her claim to fame.

Her past repertoire of tools includes using 100,000 sunflower seeds to create a portrait of contemporary Chinese artist, Ai WeiWei, coffee stains for the profile of Taiwanese singer Jay Chou, and socks and bamboo sticks for iconic Chinese film director Zhang YiMou.

Hong Yi is quick to admit her preference for unorthodox art materials didn’t come about as a stroke of genius, but was instead a pure accident.

While back in Malaysia on a semester break, she realised she had left all her art supplies back in Melbourne.

“I decided I was not going to buy a new set, but just use what I have,” she says.

“That’s the whole mindset behind what I do. Using everyday objects.”

The Korean chili paste she found in her fridge at the time became her first unlikely substitute for paint. Using a plate as a canvas, she rendered a portrait of Justin Bieber and then took a photo. The number of ‘likes’ the photo received on her Facebook page convinced her she was onto something.

While in university, Red didn’t have too much time to experiment with her art on a grand scale. She tried to juggle architecture assignments and sleep instead.

“It was hectic!” she says.

But she did manage to squeeze in some time for scribbles and sketches because, while she maintained a passion for architecture, she could never push art out of her life.

The self-described high-achiever first gained confidence in her artistic ability after winning second place in an art competition at age of seven. Since then, she has a series of accolades under her belt, including being an Australian national finalist in the SONA Superstudio Competition in 2009 and 2010.

Hong Yi’s now-famous art projects centre on prominent Chinese figures and her goal is to have her own art exhibition one day.

But success hasn’t come easy.

“I’ve cried too many times over design projects in uni,” she confesses.

It was through these tears and countless sleepness nights that she has come to terms that design is subjective, there are no definite solutions to art, and the space for criticism is boundless.

She is now more open to criticism, but she’s also learnt to disregard the opinions of some, especially if they’re coming from “trolls” on the internet.

“As long as I enjoy it and I like what I see, that’s enough,” she says.

Although she doesn’t always like what she sees at first. The Jay Chou profile made with coffee stains, for instance, had to be attempted twice before the singer’s face was recognizable. And it was only after she’d finished a seven hour video recording of the artistic process that Red realised her body had been blocking the camera lens the entire time.

But her hard work and perseverance seems to have paid off.

Recently, Red was one of the 60 presenters invited to speak at the prestigious EG Conference, held annually in Monterey, California, to bring together and celebrate innovators and talents from multiple creative industries.

Her Youtube video of Yao Ming somehow reached the eyes of one Michael Hawley, the organiser of the conference and a man who previously worked with Steve Jobs at NeXT.

“I thought it was a hoax,” she says of the first time she was contacted by Michael Hawley.

It was only after a Skype call with the former roommate of the Apple co-founder that she was convinced the invitation was genuine.

The conference turned out to be a huge networking event, where Red rubbed shoulders with the likes of Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, author Amy Tan and singer and fellow Youtube celebrity Kina Grannis.

It also marked a turning point in Hong Yi’s life. The connections she made there led to invitations to attend conferences around the world, as well offers for short-term teaching appointments at a number of design schools.

As to whether she’ll take up the teaching posts, Hong Yi isn’t sure just yet.

“I want to give myself time to explore art and see where it goes,” she says.

“I think I am ready to take the leap and just jump into it.”

For budding art students, Hong Yi has one piece of advice, cliché as it may sound.

“Keep chasing your dreams,” she says.

“Don’t just dream about it, do something about it.”

Check out Hong Yi’s latest project – Mark Zuckerberg “Facebook” Portrait in the video below: