It started off as a child-like habit of doodling whirlpool belly buttons on her dolls but soon grew to be so much more. Ellie Toh, more known as SillyJellie to her 44K+ followers on Instagram, remembers going as far as ‘decorating’ every blank page in her story books with funny drawings of ladies with dinosaur legs. Every empty space she found was her canvas, except for walls because those didn’t belong to her.
Her diving into art as a full-time pursuit started after college and a brief stint as a background painter for an animation company. As a volunteer in the Pulau Ketam Art Festival, she was tasked to assist guest artists based on her background in art. There, Ellie had her first dabble into the world of wall painting, something she still strongly associates with today as a freelance mural painter.
Her signature style came during May of 2017, when she was floundering about between becoming a well-paid freelancer, or sticking to a stable studio job. MerMay, a challenge for artists to illustrate a mermaid for each day of the month of May, became her escape from the daily humdrum and a method for her to finally illustrate mermaids in the grace and charm she never saw done. This was also quite a personal challenge, as Ellie (while already possessing a love for drawing the sea creatures) previously harboured a fear of never being quite able to do them justice.
Ink and watercolours became Ellie’s main mediums of choice for their fluidity, allowing her the ability to capture the ephemeral quality and line poetry she sought. Her experimentation with these and the sea creatures paid off, as her talent surfaced and became a sensation on Instagram. Needless to say, this spurred her on to continue honing her fine skills and draw more mermaids.
Instagram traction can be addictive however, and Ellie has admitted to being hung up over the amount of ‘likes’ at one point. After realising how she produced her own art strongly according to what her fans might like, Ellie finally managed to take a step back and reclaim her personal creative path. “If I create things that nobody else likes, but am still learning from it, it will feed into my skill and allow me to draw something that will resonate with them better in the future. Sort of like going on a journey that nobody cares about and coming back a better person,” she notes.
Her drive to create swirls around the need to do something, to shake off the restlessness that accompanies the feeling of unproductivity. Some of her favourite works have been attributed to strong memories and representations of feelings or concepts.
Draw connections from her elegant mermaids to the dames of art nouveau and you’re sharing her inspiration of Alphonse Mucha, an icon of the period known for decorative art. Ellie also professes looking up to painters James Jean, Egon Schiele, and other fellow artists popular on Instagram like Loish, Olafool (with whom Ellie is collaborating with for a children’s book), and kiDChan. “I just love seeing how their stuff evolves and I aim to constantly inspire, like how they do for me,” she excitedly replies.
When queried about the art scene in Malaysia, Ellie responds enthusiastically. However, while she notes the growth in appreciation for the arts, she admits to being a little closeted and retains being among her circle of friends.
She does mention feeling unfortunate at how distinct the sub categories of art are made to be, especially with her experience as both a freelancer and a full-time illustrator — of which she had been made to feel like two different career paths. Yet, she remains optimistic at the two mixing in circles other than hers.
Career-wise, Ellie is glad to made it as far as she has. She aims to finalise stories she has carried with her since college days, paint a humongous mural, aid the environment, become a mermaid maestro, have some plants, and clean up her room. She also dreams of a society not based and run by money, where people are at peace with themselves and unyielding to self-sabotaging nonsense that is prevalent today.
Ellie is currently working for local game company Metronomik as a concept artist. She also still dabbles in wall-painting, working as a freelance mural artist. Her highest professional pride and joy remains as an active illustrator of mermaids.
Her art can be purchased at Society6 and Etsy (@SillyJellie).
*This article first appeared in Expat magazine (March 2019 issue). Subscribe here!