We’d like to introduce you to the lovely and whimsical cover of Esther Vincent Xueming’s debut poetry collection, Red Earth. The artwork utilized in the cover was created by Singapore artist Shu Yin. To give readers a sense of how the cover art came to be, and a peek into the artistic viewpoints of Esther and Shuyin, we interviewed them both earlier this month. Scroll down to immerse yourself in Red Earth‘s dreamy book cover and author and artist interviews!
An Interview with Esther Vincent Xueming
Christina Butcher (Publisher): Esther, will you talk about how the artwork for Red Earth intersects with your poetry?
Esther Vincent Xueming (EVX): The cover art for Red Earth masterfully captures the duality of my poems, and the search for harmony and balance—of wakefulness and dreams, of memory and imagination, of darkness and light, of the conscious and subconscious. The circle motif in the centre of the cover represents night and day, moon and earth, air and water. I wonder if this was intentional on the part of the artist, Shu Yin, but I notice that most of the elements on the cover are predominantly feminine! The moon and earth are commonly associated with the female body, the water with emotions and the sacral chakra, and night with yin energies. The whale for me is a keeper of time, and the moth a signifier of transcendence.
Coincidentally (Shu Yin did not know this), I am a sun in Cancer, ruled by the moon, and a moon in Taurus, grounded by the earth, and so the cover image (half moon, half earth) is particularly resonant for me. I also love how Shu Yin draws our attention to the moon and earth, which are recurring symbols in my poems of light, desire and grounded-ness. My poems deal with themes of the earth, woman, body and memory, among others, and I think Shu Yin manages to encapsulate the feminine energy of my poems on her cover art in a subtle, evocative way.
CB: What drew you to Shu Yin as an artist?
EVX: I first found out about Shu Yin through The Tiger Moth Review, the eco journal that I edit. She sent in some work, Tribute to Inuka and Singapore Mermaids which are featured in Issue 2, and since then, I have fallen in love with the way she works with watercolors. When Blue Cactus Press picked up my work for publication, I knew immediately I wanted Shu Yin to design my cover art.
Her style is gentle and thoughtful, and there is a softness and optimism that appeals to me. I’m someone who tends to see the positive, hopeful side of things and who remains open and curious to nature, and so maybe that’s why I’m drawn to her work, which I think does all of that. As a woman artist and art therapist who works with nature and the community, I appreciate her sensitivity and careful attention to the work that she does.
At the same time, Shu Yin is a versatile artist as her portfolio will show. What I like about her art is her feminine style and how she as a person is very much in tune with female, lunar and earth energies, as her cover art of Red Earth will reveal.
CB: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
EVX: I hope that readers will take away exactly what they need to and what the book is able to offer them, and that might mean different things for different readers, or the same reader reading it at different points in their life.
I know that doesn’t seem to answer the question, but just as Red Earth was a searching and journeying for me, a tunnelling deep into my memories, subconscious, dreams and imaginings, entering into different states of consciousness, traversing geographies and moving in time and place in order to make sense of home and the self on earth, I hope Red Earth does something of the sort for the reader—makes them contemplate and re-evaluate their place on earth.
Red Earth is also a dedication to the earth, my first mother, and so I’m hoping readers will learn to see the earth anew through my poems, and be inspired to find their own unique ways of singing to the earth in gratitude, humility and love.
CB: What has been the most surprising aspect of this design and editorial process for you?
EVX: I think I’ve just been so pleasantly surprised at the congeniality with which we have all been able to work together. The publisher Christina of Blue Cactus Press has been every writer’s dream to work with, and I love her consultative and collaborative approach to the design and editorial process. I am so thankful for the way she has created an environment of openness, respect and appreciation.
Early on, I also specified to Christina that as far as possible, I wanted to work with women on the team, to grow and support women in the traditionally male-dominated sphere of publishing. I’m grateful to be able to be a part of such a publishing model, and I believe that this environment—one of support, solidarity and kinship—is what will make Red Earth, my debut, even more special upon its release.
An Interview with Shu Yin
CB: How did you come up with the concept for the cover art of Red Earth? Can you talk a bit about the creative process?
SY: The process was pretty organic. When the publisher and writer first engaged me, they provided examples of my artwork which they liked as reference for the preferred style of the cover art. I read the poems in the book, and drew sketches of images that came to mind. Some strong imagery related to individual poems surfaced, and I tried piecing some of the elements together into a single composition. I came up with a few concepts, then sought feedback from both the publisher Christina as well as the writer Esther. In the end, the sensual visuals of the red earth from Esther’s poem were prominent for me. Contrasting with the fiery red earth, was the subdued moon which represented the ‘yin’ and subconscious, themes that consistently recurred throughout the book.
CB: As an artist whose medium is primarily drawing/painting, do you think there are parallels between creating art on the easel and poems on the page?
SY: Yes, definitely. Both the artist and poet are channeling the drive to create, using their specific media – the paint and words respectively. We are all expressing and bringing to life our personal inspiration and ideas, which are a part of us but also more than us, the collective subconscious. The creative process is a state of flow through which the subconscious is brought to the surface and externalized. The media we are using are tools that come with their own characteristics and limitations. I feel there is an element of surrendering to the creative process and what it needs to be brought to life. We are also presenting a part of ourselves, which can be very personal, to the viewer to ‘consume’, and once it’s out there, how it is perceived by the viewer is beyond our control.
CB: Can you talk a little bit about making artwork for a book cover, specifically? Did it change how you approached the artmaking journey?
SY: I had admired Esther’s work with the The Tiger Moth Review, a pioneer in Singapore curating literary and visual art works on nature. When she approached me, I was honored and eager to create the cover for her debut book of poetry. It is my first time creating artwork to be published on a book cover and also my first time formally collaborating with Christina and Esther (apart from The Tiger Moth Reivew). It certainly helped that the poems were enjoyable to read and I could resonate with them. For the artwork, it was important for me that all partners were satisfied with it. I valued their feedback and it was also affirming that my collaborators were open minded to my suggestions and trusted my artistic vision. Art creation can be heavily influenced by one’s collaborators. It was heartening that we have similar values and ideals, and they were supportive of the kind of art I create.
CB: What drives you to create? What pushes you to try new techniques or start working on a new piece of art?
SY: Creating is an integral part of my life whether it’s for commissions or personal expression. It’s an embodied thing, not just cerebral, and I don’t have an external material ‘why’ as a reason for creating or trying new techniques apart from it being an intrinsic need. It keeps me happy and I feel it’s a natural part of being alive. As long as I’m able, I would be curious and want to create or try new ways of creating. Creating puts one in a flow state where we’re right here and now in the present moment, instead of worrying about the past or future. It also produces happy chemicals in the brain like dopamine, and lowers the stress hormone cortisol. Creating helps me process thoughts and emotions about things that happened, and imagine new possibilities. What we can imagine, we can materialize. Furthermore, as my life can be socially isolated, sharing art on social media helps me stay connected with people who view and comment on my art. I feel touched, understood and connected when I hear that others resonate with what I have made. As for what pushes me to try new techniques or start a new piece, I think it depends on what I need at that moment. Sometimes, I need to do the same thing to ground myself, and sometimes, I need to do something different. It’s about staying curious, aware and sensitive to what is needed at that point in time.
Readers based in the U.S. can pre-order Red Earth here. Readers based in Singapore can pre-order Red Earth from Pagesetters in August 2021. Red Earth is a joint publication between Blue Cactus Press and Pagesetters. It is a cross-cultural collaboration in a time of heightened border controls.