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Low-Fi Craft in a High-Tech World

By Serena Fox

In the hyper-digital realm of men’s lifestyle magazines, Rebecca Chew recently found herself washing fish guts off her hands.

“I don’t like sitting at my computer all day,” says the art director of Esquire Malaysia and Esquire Singapore. “That was one of those great moments when I got to clean a whole fish and have the bones end up in a glossy spread.”

Unusual hands-on techniques are something of a trademark for Chew, who frequently adds painstaking mixed-media arts and crafts into what is otherwise a polished international periodical that “celebrates what it means to be a man in the 21st century.”

The contrast works. Chew will sew thread on a fashion photo, glue human hair onto a Movember layout, and hand-cut stencils and monoprint bullets into a war feature. Her illustrations may go analog to digital and back again (photo shoot, print, add an element, scan, edit the image digitally, print, add another element, rescan) three or four times before they’re done. The result is a striking incorporation of the physical into the photographed.

Chew first came to our attention for her embroidered photos in the magazine’s annual fashion issue. “I was bored with my style and I thought, what if I could incorporate thread into the content itself?” she says. 

The following year, inspired by the headgear of Mexican luchadors, she created masks that cover the celebrities’ faces with stitchery. “I just started stitching blindly. I didn’t have the luxury of drawing a pattern on the photographs, because it would have been visible. So it was one-take embroidery work. All the mistakes are there for you to see — sometimes I’d punch too deep into the paper and tear it, but it was salvageable.” 

She revisited thread recently for a feature article on a soldier who returned from the Iraq war addicted to heroin. This time she used cross-stitched war themes to emphasize the painful tension between his experience and the expectations of his welcoming family. “It’s a play on the ‘home sweet home’ samplers people frame and put on their wall,” Chew explains. “The opener was a camouflage pattern, and I also did an illustration of opium flowers coming out of a gun.” To get the final image resolution she wanted, she had to make the original artwork the size of an A4 sheet of paper — which meant far more stitching than she’d estimated. “I went without sleep for three days to get it done,” she remembers. “That was a lot of stitches, and I’m not very good at sewing.”

Chew, who studied graphic design at a Nottingham Trent University program in Malaysia, decided early that she didn’t want to work for an advertising agency or corporate design house. “I like to work with stories,” she says. After early stints at various newspapers and Off the Edge, a pop-culture magazine, she landed at Esquire. She says she loves working in print. “The tablet magazines were fun for a while, but I realized I really missed the smell of the ink, the fact that you can move the pages with your hands. It just feels more real.” Now art director of both the Singapore and Malaysia editions, she displays a relentless honesty — along with flashes of dark humor — in her quest to illustrate the subject matter of each article.

“My process is very straightforward,” she says. “I read the text, take my time understanding the story, talk with the writer. Sometimes we’ll brainstorm before it’s written about how we can put it together visually. But to me, the words are at the center. From there, I always try for something atypical, to illustrate the story in a way you aren’t used to thinking about it. The majority of my inspiration doesn’t come from the design itself, but more from books, movies, and the world around me.”

Close-up photos of rich fabrics form the backdrop of this fashion layout for Esquire Malaysia. “I like combining images that give you extra information,” says Chew. 

Calling herself her own worst critic, Chew sweats the details. “I’m not satisfied until I’ve tried to do a layout a few different ways. If an image isn’t working, I’ll change it or throw the whole thing away and start over. I only know it’s completed when it’s all breathing together, when I have a good pairing of space and imagery with the words the writers have written. That’s when I know it’s a good layout. But I’m not easily satisfied.”

Like many designers, Chew spends most of her day in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and her favorite, InDesign. “The big thing for me in a layout is alignment, control. It’s a program I really love because I can be so precise.” But although she loves finishing her work in exacting digital detail, Chew says incorporating handcrafts and manual darkroom or printing techniques brings an authenticity she can’t get any other way. “When you’re young, that’s how you explore the world. You put things in your mouth, you touch and smell and feel things. That has carried through into my adult life: wanting to feel something real.“ 

Chew’s urge to incorporate the unexpected, to think beyond the usual imagery in an effort to deliver something both new and true to the subject, is the constant in her work. Let’s look at some other examples.

To achieve a playful 2D/3D look in one set of illustrations, Chew photographed a cocktail umbrella and other props and printed out the images. She then put another piece of paper on top of the images on a lightbox and drew the pen-and-ink figures over the images. She scanned the results and combined them in Photoshop. 

Chew often uses humor for controversial subjects. “If it makes me laugh or it’s kind of weird or different, then yeah, why not? Especially if it’s a very restrictive subject, where I need to change the framework to get people to look at it.”

A step-by-step guide to a testicular cancer self-exam, for example, posed a challenge because Malaysian law forbids showing or explicitly discussing a penis or scrotum. Chew chose to illustrate it with avocados. “It was a creative way of getting around the censorship. I thought avocados looked kind of like wrinkly balls. I made the faces with Play-Doh, and then we propped them up and photographed them.”

For a feature questioning gender roles, Chew juxtaposed staid objects in racy ways. “I bought a copy of Fight Club and had it humping my mom’s copy of Good Wives from the 1960s. That’s my mom’s purse from the ‘70s, with a hot dog in it. I guess it’s about men and women, and subverting the roles. I was looking for old-fashioned images that are somehow kind of obscene, and I shot it on purple because it’s a sexy color.”

The text treatment of an Asian-focused retrospective piece on the 1993 downing of Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu called for grit and realism. “I took a sharp pencil and made holes in the paper, and then scanned the holes. I used monoprint cut typography for the title, and I monoprinted the bullets as well. I wanted it to feel real.” The multi-step process involved creating paper stencils of the lettering with a blade, ink-printing them, scanning the prints, and then cleaning up the scans in Photoshop. Chew did the same for the bullets, which she used as an art element throughout the piece.

Chew says she struggled with a photo essay on the ephemeral quality of life by photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, who chronicled his wife’s slow demise from cancer. “It’s difficult to present a picture of a person in a coffin in a magazine. You want to be sensitive to the emotion but you also want to present it in a way that people will be able to look at it.” For the final image, she chose a faded pink background — the color of the cherry blossom — and stripped everything else away from the two-page spread. “In a magazine layout, sometimes the negative space works to tell the story. You don’t need to put something in when the emptiness speaks for itself.”

One of the things Chew likes the best about magazine work is the chance to experiment collaboratively with a wide variety of writers, photographers, and stylists. For a recent product spread, she brainstormed with photographer Paul Gadd and stylist Jason Lim. They came up with the concept of reducing the featured products to silhouettes, which led to an unusual and highly enjoyable darkroom session.

“I like photograms,” Chew says, “where you expose the paper with light and shadows without using a camera. So we thought, why not?” Chew brought props and textural elements (including the aforementioned hand-cleaned fish bones) and they went to work, creating a unique black-and-white theme for each spread. “It was just the three of us in the darkroom, and it was really fun, like being in college again.”

See more of Rebecca Chew’s work at http://rebeccachew.co.