Bizzie Bee's Artist Interview: Athi Prem

Tell me a little about yourself.

My name is Athi and I'm a Paper Engineer. It's my life-long passion to work with paper materials. I love to touch, feel and sense the unique qualities in different types of papers and see how these can be transformed from flat sheets into beautiful three-dimensional objects.

How did you start making art?

I was pretty young there. When I was little I always scribbled on papers, textbooks (not so good I know!) and any other scrap papers I could get my hands on. I was also getting a taste of three-dimensional arts in cutting and nailing wood pieces from my granddad, who was a leisure carpenter at the time. Back in my early days there weren't any electronic gadgets around. It was more like trying to be creative in playing with what was around the house, in the nearby forest or in the houses of the kids next door.

Why do you make art?

Sometimes I just want to be active and do things for no particular reason. It's just a desire to do, explore, express my feelings and to show what I have inside me. Maybe that's called satisfaction and for me, cutting paper brings me fun and a pure joy of satisfaction.

What is your workspace like?

I may describe it as "chaotically organized". Even though paper is my most preferred choice I also love to experiment with all kinds of materials and techniques. As we all know, Hong Kong is not a place where you can have a lot of space so I categorically sorted all the stuff out and placed it systematically in drawers with labels. However, there will be times when I feel like I want to spread everything out in order to explore my ideas and see how various textures and colours can be combined in clever and meaningful ways and that's when things can get messy for a few days—or weeks! Materials aside, as a paper engineer, I also have a sizeable pop-up and paper-related reference book collection which I acquired over the years. They all form part of my workspace. I hope one day I can share the collection with the public as a kind of pop-up books and paper art resource library. That's one of my dreams.

What is your favourite art form?

Because the nature of my work is manipulating paper, I am very much interested in any form of transformation in objects. I love challenging processes that push the boundaries of many different materials.

What inspires you and how do you keep your creative spark?

I love patterns, geometric shapes and colours. They are everywhere, even in nature, and it's so exciting to sometimes discover them in the least expected places.

Was there an artist you admired when you were young that inspired you to be an artist yourself?

It's more like a bunch of books rather than a single artist. One of my close friends gave me four pop-up books when I was fourteen. I opened them and was totally amazed at how each page contained pop out elements and had pull tabs which transformed the paper into shapes. That's how I first knew about pop-ups and the occupation called Paper Engineer and that's how my passion and desire to become one started.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished a creative pop-up workshop at a secondary school in Tai Po. I received student feedback and it was very amazing and encouraging. The students learned something new using simple materials such as paper while enhancing their creativity. It'd be great if I could visit more schools in the future.

What's your favourite place to see art?

There's no place like London where you can visit the British Museum, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery all within one street. Tate Modern is great and there's even a tour in Brick Lane especially for graffiti arts! The atmosphere of the city really inspires me.

What is your favourite museum?

The British Museum, without a doubt.

What's your favourite art work?

I love Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. It's fun, colourful and bold with unique brush texture.

What are you reading right now?

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. Actually, I read this book in Thai before when I was young and I remember how it totally changed the way I see the world. Recently I found this book again, an English version at the Hong Kong Book Fair, and grabbed it right away. It feels like seeing a childhood friend again.

Do you collect anything?

Pop-up books, pop-up cards and wooden toys.

Describe a real-life situation that inspired you.

Some time ago I had a project where I had to create a pop-up castle and the whole building including the roof had to collapse once the book was closed. The castle was not the problem but the roof was a very difficult part to make collapse and then pop-out nice and straight again. So I took this project back home every evening trying to solve this problem. Eventually I was successful after a month of trial and error. I felt really proud of this project and learnt a lot about myself and the work along the way.

What jobs have you done other than being an artist?

I worked a number of part-time jobs whilst studying my master's degree in London: as a wait staff in Thai and Asian restaurants, a barista at coffee shops and an audio guide promoter at different tourist attractions around London. Now I work as a Paper Engineer full-time and teach classes and workshops at different schools.

Name something you love, and tell us why.

My parents. For the fact that they were both government officers but they never dictated what I should do for a living or gave me pressure in having to follow in their footsteps. They just simply believed in me and my choices.

What's the best piece of advice you've been given?

This is from my mom: Take care of your family well—family is more important than anything else in the world.

What advice do you have?

Give 100% in what you're doing and have no regrets.

What is your dream project if there were no restrictions on time or money? What would you create?

That's kind of surreal and I actually will need some time to think about it!

Anything else you'd like to share?

I love swimming and used to be a swimmer when I was young. Once in the water, I cannot just float around, I have to swim. I cannot think of anything else apart from focusing on the number of laps. Swimming is a mild form of meditation and helps me to focus.

See more of Athi's work @Papertechnik

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