A Day in the Life of a Conceptual Artist by Melanie Drury

As told by Jason Lu

I stir and look at my watch. It is 5am ñ I overslept! I have a quick breakfast and drive from where I live in St Julianís to my studio in Marsascala. It is early enough in the morning so I do not encounter traffic, but it is a relatively long drive on this small island. My mind begins to fill with concern about all the things I must do today, and my late start. So I begin to chant some Buddhist mantras I learnt as a child, and it makes me feel more peaceful by the time I reach my destination.

A neighbour greets me as I park my car. One of the things I like about Malta is that the Maltese are friendly. I like Marsascala because I like the Malta that is as it used to be, not developed like the Sliema area. And I like the sea because it is soothing. I go for a swim everyday and just lie on a rock. That is the beauty of Malta.

I discovered Malta when I was studying art in Florence. A hectic city like all others, I felt the need to escape every few months. I accidentally ended up in Malta when my friend suggested it, partly because it was English-speaking but mainly because she messed up the currency conversion, thinking that one US dollar was equivalent to three liri!

We left for Tunisia in a cargo boat almost immediately on arrival in Malta, following the initial shock of discovering our mistake. However the experience of Valletta on a summer afternoon, with the hot sun in the sky and the cool shadows in its deserted streets, struck me profoundly enough to make me return to Malta for one or two weeks every year since that June in 2000.

I enter my studio and look at the vast array of works that lie within, from photo sketches to cartoon drawings, from sculptures to castings, all of which are my creations. In an artistís development, the first layer is photo-realism, proportion and subjects that others can immediately recognise, while later comes the emotional layer; what lies beneath the surface expression.

I can now smile when I look back on that emotionally-inspired but complex period of my artistic life, when I was knocking from one pole to another. Now I realise that it is not extreme feeling that necessarily is the base of artistic work.

I am no longer judgmental of right and wrong, and concentrate on common ground rather than differing issues. Sometimes I find it sad that even a small island suffers separatist attitudes, whether geographically or politically. Even the village festas are split between this band club and that ñ there is always ìour sideî and ìthe ones on the other sideî.

Before I begin my current work of casting and sculpture, I pray for direction and earth and heaven, and then start immediately. This is a year allocated to my creativity. I am spending most of my time developing work that most people do not appreciate. Yet before I create, I meditate and then allow my art to be simply a channel.

As I work, I revel in thoughts of how fulfilled I feel because at the moment, art is my personal journey. The only message I am trying to convey through my current projects is ME ñ the experiences I am going through. I really believe that an artistic creation is a reflection of the artist and, since I am sincerely trying to work on myself, in three years my art may manifest itself completely differently. I wonder what I will think of myself reflected through my art when I look back.

However, I am convinced that there can be no good or bad in art. I am not trying to hide the figurative or the illustrative or the landscape or the cartoon side of me, because altogether they make up ME. Most artists try to be either contemporary or traditional, but I feel that art is an expression of what is going on inside you and there are many facets to each of us.

Michelangelo is my favourite artist; he never worked in order to be liked, but because it was his passion. Five hundred years later, his works can still touch another lost soul and give inspiration. I like to think that this is what I might be doing now; that giving everything I have got, I may one day touch someone to wake up from being a production machine controlled by society.

In the early days, I went for the commercial stuff because I believed it was the only way to make money as an artist. I learnt web design and 3D animation at the San Francisco Academy of Art. I was very money-minded. Even then I woke up very early but it was to read the paper and analyse what might influence the stock market! I was successful and became financially well-off so eventually I decided to go for a trip to Italy .

Although I had always been interested in fine art, I never did it because everybody said it was impossible to make a living as a fine artist. But in Italy I was so touched by Michelangeloís works that when I returned to my home in the USA, I quit my job and enrolled at the Florence Academy of Art. There I studied drawing, painting and sculpture for six to eight hours a day for three years.

The Florence Academy of Art was a long haul from the doodles I first drew to communicate with my classmates in the USA, when words in a foreign language failed me. Made in Taiwan, I spent the first 15 years of my life in Taipei, and in our culture we do not express our feelings so readily, nor verbally or in any way. When my family moved to the USA my English was extremely basic, and those doodles turned out to be the beginning of my using visual art as a means of expression.

When I finished my course at the Florence Academy of Art, I wanted to move to Malta for a year or two to continue studying, but I did not like the system of the art courses here. Then some people who saw my works, which I had brought from Florence, asked me to teach and so I began teaching. I like teaching but most people want instant results when it is important to build the right foundations. I now teach a few hours a week to encourage my students and to support my income.

Some years I might do a lot of commercial work, which keeps the ball rolling. But I am coming to believe more and more that when we are not working for self-interest there is a higher power that helps, giving everything that we need, so I am not afraid any more. And I feel that, indeed, my art is simply an expression of my spiritual journey.

Previously I thought that I needed to accept commissions and to acquire sponsors but now I am willing to take risks. It is interesting to see this change come over me, as some years ago I would always own brandname products and a beautiful car ñ I suppose I did not have enough confidence within to show people who I really was, and needed a cover.

I think people are conditioned into fear because that way they are more easily controlled. I believe people should be more content with what they have. Why work for three months for a plasma TV when you still watch Channel 5 in only a slightly different way?

I do not care about all that anymore. And it seems that somehow everything is being taken care of automatically. Helping hands crop up around me and this exhibition in Rome is happening. I am even about to travel to India with my wife, Zoya, although I have sold only a few works this year.

I cannot do commercial and expressive work simultaneously. Nowadays I realise that I was not being truly artistic when I was doing commercial work ñ you could be if you loved it but I do not. The key is to love what you do. I deeply believe in classical training but I personally find commercial work boring and unexpressive. Therefore, at the moment I am trying to do only what I want to do, without too much concern about whether it will sell.

I take the time to check my email. Most of my clients are foreigners because my kind of work does not suit the taste of the Maltese market, but I am no longer striving to please people. Somewhere, there are people who appreciate my conceptual work and can pay for it. Malta is a place I like to live in while creating works that may appeal to the global market.

I take about an hourís nap either before or after lunch. I cook for myself in my studio and eat rice and cabbage and other really simple food. I am slowly progressing on becoming vegetarian ñ no meat but I still eat fish and eggs occasionally. I came to understand the concept of karma (action and reaction) through Zoyaís yoga background and lifestyle together with the influence of an English Shaman I met in Malta. Their encouragement also allowed me to deal with my buried issues of fear and anger.

In the afternoon I go swimming because it helps cleanse my energy and mental clutter ñ purification helps self-expression ñ and then I continue to work until 10pm or 11pm. Every month, for one year, I am making a major project for an advertising slot in Art Review magazine. I am also preparing for 800 square metres of space in the Rome exhibition in mid-October. I am working almost continuously.

I never had the same kind of motivation in the years of doing commercial art ñ it would only happen two or three times a year but right now there is so much I want to express that I almost cannot stop. I am almost having no time with Zoya ñ last week I saw her twice ñ but at least we will go on a trip together soon.

I work a rather long day when one considers how people may think that being an artist is an easy life. It is exciting but at the same time, as a human being, I do get burnt out. I may work constantly for three weeks then for one week I could just chill and recharge, concentrating on the mental and inspirational aspect.

Although I may appear to be a workaholic ñ waking up so early and sleeping so late, doing nothing but work in between and, at times, hardly seeing my wife ñ I do not work for the money; to me it is a journey of self-discovery. I believe we all come down here for the experience of our life and sharing it is part of our journey and brings about harmony. I share my life through my art.

We all must eat, sleep, have some basic needs to satisfy then we die. Therefore, I believe that while we are alive it is more important to feel fulfilled.