Finding Art & Life in Waste

By Hilary Kwan


This is a story about art, community, and daring to be myself.

Hilary Kwan, the artist, at work on her piece environmental commentary pieces made from trash and paint"The Kiss of Death."
Hilary Kwan, the artist, at work on her piece "The Kiss of Death."

I grew up in Hong Kong, a metropolis whose culture values stability and pragmatism. When I moved alone to the San Francisco Bay Area for college and work, I continued to embody those values. I believed in the false dilemma of choosing between a professional career and passion. I chose to lay my passion aside and focus on my career. A decade later, I kept pondering whether I should take a sabbatical to travel and align my life with my values. It dawned on me that time is finite and there is no better time to go than the present. Having no idea that COVID-19 would happen, I started the trip with my partner in December 2019. Like my trip, my art journey was curvy and unique. My mom is an Art teacher, and I have a lot of friends that were into design, manga, and animation. Under their influence, I always enjoyed drawing as a hobby growing up. Even though I had considered going to art school, I was deterred by the cost and burden it would place on my family. Gradually, I even stopped engaging in art creations during college and work, drowning out my heart with excuses of being busy with work. During sabbatical and COVID times, I really wanted to use the extra time to reconnect with art and level-up my art skills. That led me to take a series of fundamental classes from Skillshare. For 1-2 hours every day, I watched tutorial videos and practice sketching basic shapes, volume, shading, perspective, gestures. The classes ended in 3 months, but I continued to draw consistently after that. Drawing has changed my life. Drawing brings out the best part of me -- the part where I am persistent and concentrated. Drawing helps me to get into a flow state, as if time itself seems to stand still on the tip of my pencil. Having the support of my partner, my family, and my friends fueled my learning progress, and I am grateful that they are in my life.

Hilary Kwan at her art exhibition in Thailand where she show cased her environment commentary art pieces made of trash and paint.
From left to right: Jukki, Uma, Hilary, Eleanor, and Luna at the art exhibition in Thailand.

Finding one’s tribe and community can spark magic. My magic struck in a hidden valley surrounded by mountains 3 hours away from the nearest big city in Northern Thailand. I made friends with Eleanor from Borneo: a fearless soul, artist, tattooist, activist. These labels barely scratch the surface of describing her - her full portrayal requires much more color. From our first encounter, Eleanor and I connected over art and the history of colonialism. Eleanor has consistently used art to bring people together. She brought up the idea of creating a space for artists and creativity, and possibly creating an exhibition. She asked if I was interested. Having no prior experience in exhibiting, I had some doubts, however, I recognized the magic of jumping on such a unique opportunity.

Starting something new is not easy, but everything you learn is yours to keep. I had a few ideas already from the past year to get me started with the exhibition. I picked the topic of waste and sustainability because it is so easily disposable and forgotten. I wanted to explore the impact humans have on our environment, especially with our existing corporations, systems and habits. It is not a pretty subject, and it triggers negative emotions. Still, I wanted to bring a spotlight on it, even if I could only do so for a night or a month.

The question I had in mind: how can humans live more sustainably with nature so that future generations can enjoy it as well?

For my medium and materials, I tried to reuse as much material as I could. These included a nylon bag, cardboard, and trash collected on the street. If my art piece is like the main street of the exhibition, I realized that there were many small unknown alleys that were equally important. These include how to run an exhibition, how to prepare the space, how to hang my work, and how to conduct event marketing etc. Luckily, I had plenty of support from Eleanor, my mom, my partner, and the community. Friends came to share their meals with me, shared their paint for repainting the wall, provided ideas and helped with the pieces. On opening night, two friends, Jukki and Uma performed butoh dance, while Eleanor played traditional Borneo music with her flute from home. Seeing how the community came together gave me a lot of hope. What I learned is that people create, people collaborate, people unite, and people initiate changes.

The exhibition turned into so much more, and now the memories and lessons are mine to keep. After this experience, I am more confident to create something new and collaborate with others. Even as a beginner at something, I don’t have to start from scratch. There are previous skills and experiences that I can apply to new challenges. I am constantly reminded of this when I create a new piece of art.


Hilary Kwan, illustrator, graphic designer, and digital nomad.
Hilary Kwan, illustrator and graphic designer.

Hilary Kwan is an illustrator and graphic designer. Her art includes paintings, multi-material pieces, and graphic designs.

You can follow her travels and art @ifuckinglovedrawing on Instagram. You can contact Hilary on Instagram for commissions.

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