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That Mama: Artground Artist and SAHM Mama of Two Gracie Chai

that mama artist illustrator gracie chai
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This month’s That Mama is Gracie Chai, the artist and illustrator behind “Happy Homebodies” at The Artground

The Artground is one of our favourite indoor play spaces for kids in Singapore, and we were huge fans of their most recent exhibition, Happy Homebodies”, which wrapped up last weekend. Artist, children’s book illustrator and stay-at-home-mama of two Gracie Chai designed Happy Homebodies, drawing inspiration from her own children (Eden, 4 and Ocean, 1) by emphasizing imaginative play with everyday objects in a home environment. Read on for Gracie’s tips on making art at home with kids (including some great ideas for minimizing mess and clean-up!), as well as her thoughts on what constitutes “work”: “It took me a while to develop the right attitude, of not seeing my children as a hassle or hindrance to my work,” she explains, “They are, indeed part of my work, too. Everything falls under the same heading of my work, just in different forms.” Consider our minds blown!

that mama artist illustrator gracie chai

Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?

Hi, I’m Gracie! I’m a self-taught artist/maker/illustrator. My husband, Jian, and I are a mixed cultural couple who met when I studied abroad, and together we navigate all the cliched differences that come with being a laid-back Aussie (him) and an uptight Singaporean (by comparison, me!). Together we have two beautiful children, Eden, our Son who is 4 and our Daughter, Ocean, who is 1. I’m thankful for the flexibility my work allows, granting me the freedom to be a stay/work-at-home mum while raising the kids simultaneously.

Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?

Pre-kids, I had it all planned out. As a newly betrothed woman, there was already this deep desire within me to be a stay-at-home mum (if we should have kids), while making and selling my art concurrently.

I would be a super mum, doing it all, and everything would work out swimmingly. So, I industriously worked towards that goal once my husband and I got married.

At that time, I did have a full-time marketing job, but was also selling clothes and accessories that I’d handmade online, along with conducting workshops and teaching piano privately.

After having my firstborn, who was a preemie and had to spend the first almost-2 months of his young life in the NICU, I learnt that motherhood wasn’t as smooth-sailing as I thought it’d be.

the son of artist and illustrator gracie chai

I had heard of the fatigue that would come, but actually experiencing it was another matter. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer exhaustion or the incredible weight of responsibility that would be placed on my feeble shoulders keeping a defenceless young homosapien alive, nor the effects of raging post-pregnancy hormones coupled with awesome breastfeeding woes. It was truly a game of pure survival in the first few months, yet on top of that, I still had to honour the commissions I had taken on in the unexpected birthdate of my child.

Once Eden turned 6 months old, I came to the realisation that I just couldn’t do it all. I wasn’t able to give my best to either endeavour, neither motherhood nor my work. So I had to make the tough call to put my career on hold and purely focused on raising my son well.

the son of artist and illustrator gracie chai with her daughter ocean

It wasn’t until he was 2 years old that I felt like I had developed my “mother-legs”. At that time too, without me pushing my work out, I had people coming up to me asking if I would take on commissions. Before I knew it, I was living out the vision I had for myself, being a work-at-home mum.

Now with two kids in tow, my line of work has shifted again. I couldn’t be making clothes like I’d used to; cutting and printing fabrics is very labour intensive, not to mention space invasive. It just would not fly with two inquisitive young children in the house. So it has morphed into taking on illustration-type jobs, though I still teach various craft workshops every now and then.

that mama artist illustrator gracie chai

How did you develop an interest in art? When did you know you could make a career out of it?

I think I always had a born bent towards it; an understanding of things like music, beauty in aesthetics, literature and the like came very naturally to me. I even remember participating in a test where the results showed that I was 99% right-brain dominant, though I’m not too sure how accurate that test was!

Over the years, I realised I was able to fashion things with my hands to a certain level of competency and excellence with less trial and error than one would normally assume. As I had no formal training in art or design, (my degree was in journalism and public relations), I always struggled with my own level of competency. It wasn’t until online business came on the scene, and under the encouragement of my friends and then fiancé, that I’d put my art out there for the world to see and purchase.

My work started getting recognition overseas and I was earning more through the sales of my handmade dresses than my full-time job. I think that gave me the confidence to believe there’s value in my art. That was when I decided to quit my desk job to pursue my creative passions.

I do think my story belongs to the category of the underdogs because even now as I reflect on my story, I’m finding it quite incredible that a self-taught artist found the type of success where people would fork money out for my work, or that I’d get to collab with cool folks, illustrating children books or be even given a chance to have my own exhibition/installation designing a play space for kids! I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities and I can only attribute this to God’s undeserving grace unto me.

the children of artist gracie chai sort vegetables in the kitchen

Do you have any tips (or favourite activities) for parents to encourage a love of art in their kids?

A lot of times, as parents/adults, we are focused on the end results; such as creating “art” that will wind up visually beautiful. What gets overlooked is the process of creating itself — that experience has value, too. If a kid had a terrible time making something, say being bossed through it the whole time, though it might look gorgeous at the end of it to an adult, he’s quite obviously not going to love art coming out of it. It’s all just a bunch of rigorous rules and systems to him. Or worse, he might even come out of it thinking his art will never be “good enough,” so why try?

There’s something called process art, which if you’re unfamiliar with I’d recommend Googling (you’ll find many fun activities to do with your tots!), where the focus is not in the finished product but in the doing. It encourages play, it encourages exploration, it encourages freedom in creation and ultimately, kids develop their own independence and a confidence to define what beauty/art means to them personally.

I think most parents are afraid of the mess, too. Or rather, if we’re truthful, we’d rather not have another mess to clean. A tip, if they are still young, is to lay a very large painter’s tarp on the floor, leave your kids in their nappies and just let them have a go with paints and things. When they are done, toss out the nappy and give them a shower. Don’t even bother with cleaning the tarp, just reuse as it is for the next art activity. Super easy solution and fuss free, no dirty clothes to wash, no messy floors to wipe up.

the children of artist gracie chai reads with her children

How did you get back into the swing of things after having kids? How has having a child/children changed the way you define work?

It really was a mental shift for me. I used to think I must have my own alone time to work. It was easier with my son, because he was such an excellent napper. He would give me 3-4 hours a day of solid undisturbed time. I would work while he napped. I thought this was how things would be… until I had my daughter. She is nothing like her brother. On a good day, she would give me 40 minutes of “down time”, but most times, it’s a 20-minute nap.

It took me a while to develop the right attitude, of not seeing my children as a hassle or hindrance to my work, but they are, indeed part of my work, too. It didn’t benefit me to segregate my commission work and pit that against the rearing of children then further compartmentalising my housework on top of that like it’s a lesser thing. Everything falls under the same heading of my work, just in different forms. 

that mama artist illustrator gracie chai with her two children

So now, I’ve just learnt to make things happen with them pitter pattering all around me. If I’m working at my desk, they’ve learnt to play independently near me. Sometimes, if they see me drawing, they’ll climb up on the chair onto my back and I embrace that. I let them have a go at colouring and doodling, sit them down next to me with their own sets of stationery, too. When they were infants, I would wear them in my wrap and just go about with my day. I think things will morph as their ages change, so I do think the challenge will lie in how flexible and creative I can be, incorporating their needs with mine.

I do have friends who are neighbours (freneighbours, I like to call them) and family who can help watch the kids on occasions when I really need to solely concentrate on work, especially when I’m tight for time. So that absolutely helps.

Raising kids is simply not a job for one, I’m appreciative of having a community.

that mama artist illustrator gracie chai

How do you maintain an identity separate from your children?

I personally don’t think I can have an identity apart from being a mother, but I don’t let it fully define me either. A lot of who I am is because I have two kids calling me mama, and I do relish that and count it a joy and blessing.

I still, however, pursue my own interests, though even my own personal interests have morphed now! I think motherhood is so entwined in me, in my being, that it is me. It doesn’t define me, but it is me.

How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?

With forward planning and humility, I guess. We all have 24 hours in a day and acknowledging that we’re limited in our resources (time and physical energy) is the first step. I like seeing my days spread out on a large calendar as that gives me some kind of mental and visual mastery on the concept of grasping and stewarding my time well.

I start my day making a to-do list. I plot out my three non-negotiables of the day (the frogs that I must swallow), and everything else that falls behind those are the “good to dos”. If I don’t tackle them, it’s okay. They can be placed under my non-negotiables for the next day.

that mama artist illustrator gracie chai cooking in the kitchen with her children

Meal-planning is another life-saver. It does take a concerted effort at the start, but it’s a worthy investment of time. It’s a hassle right at the beginning, but it allows you to free your time and mind when you’ve got the hard job of actually planning it out. Crockpot, oven, induction hob, and a pressure cooker, these are my trusty kitchen comrades. These guys allow me to churn out tasty and nutritious meals without me actively cooking so I can tend to other pressing needs.

Four years of motherhood has taught me that I also need to plan for the unthinkable. For example, if I think I can complete a commission within five days, I make sure to give myself an extra week.  Random things can happen and they will derail your well thought-out plans; like the whole family falling unexpectedly ill, so it’s good to give yourself buffer.

Another thing I do with my husband is that we have a shared Google calendar. That way, at a glance, we are both aware of our social commitments, so we are mindful not to overbook ourselves as a family.

I wish I had more time for…
Sewing! I want to get back into designing and making clothes for myself and the kids! I still want to create a line of children’s apparel.

I always feel saner after…
Two things: taking a walk around nature and being in prayer and meditation.
If I have the luxury of doing both those two activities at once, I will be doubly the saner!

that mama artist illustrator gracie chai daughter ocean

What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
I live up in the North East, I love how close we are to nature! I have an amazing view of the wetlands reserve. We see eagles diving for fish all the time here, flocks of vibrant tropical birds darting past us in the day, family of otters splashing about and monitor lizards swimming lazily in the river.

Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
We love visiting the museums! There are so many interactive installations.

Read more: The most kid-friendly museums in Singapore

Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Singapore?
Din Tai Fung and Whisk & Paddle.

Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
We haven’t had that much of a luxury to travel, and when we do, we always go back to Australia so the kids can have a better sense of their heritage. However, we will be visiting Kerala, India later on in the year, so that is something exciting for us!

illustration by that mama artist illustrator gracie chai

Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?

Familiarity definitely breeds contempt. After being married to each other for awhile, topped up with the stress of everyday living, it’s much easier to pick out the flaws and keep grievances of one another. It’s human nature, I guess.

So for me personally, I have to consciously train myself to look out for the ways in which my husband is being lovely and sweet, and be appreciative of when he goes out of his way to serve our family.

Try to be quick to compliment instead of dishing out a complaint, and be mindful to practice kindness, and respect one another.

Date nights are great if you can afford it and have people to watch the kids, but if not, a little creativity goes a long way.

Favourite date night restaurants?
Mad About Sucre.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
That the kids are not mine to own. The kids are firstly God’s and I am just a steward.

As a Christian, that gives me immense hope that, one, I can’t screw up the kids too far with my own flaws (ha-ha!) — that is out of His sovereignty.

And two, God cares for the kids more than I can and ever will, so whatever happens to them in life, I can trust in Him because He is good.

that mama artist illustrator gracie chai with her children

Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women:
Super Mum is a myth, don’t be so hard on yourself, we all suffer from and have mum guilt. Just do the best you can possibly yet, there’s always room for humility and growth.

There is no one standard fit. Do what works best for your family. Challenges will always come, embrace instead of fight them.Do the research and go with what works for you and your family, don’t get into mummy wars.

As a mama I wish I were better at…
Modelling emotional self-regulation (pssst! Click here for tips on how to do just that! –Ed.).

What’s your favourite family ritual?
Story reading before bedtime ,and my husband building forts for the kids with our quilts and pillows before they go to sleep.

I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
“Is the fridge stocked for tomorrow’s breakfast?”

that mama artist illustrator gracie chai with her son jumping on the bed

My favourite moment of the day is…
When both my kids have gone to sleep. (I think I hear a whole chorus of stay-at-home-mamas going “YAAASSS!”)

Thank you so much to Gracie, Eden and Ocean for sharing their time and their home with us. And thank you, as ever, to Irina Nilsson Photography for the absolutely stunning snaps of Gracie and her adorable kids!

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