Onion Peterman on choosing the artist’s life

Inside the studio of one of Hong Kong’s most prolific illustrators.

When I was seventeen, a middle-aged man berated me in front of my mother at a dinner gathering. “Being an artist is not a real job,” he said. “You can’t just make drawings and call that a job. Especially not in Hong Kong.”

That night I went to my room and cried; I was too young to know that random men don’t have the right to tell you what to do with your life. A few years later, I came across the zine and print shop Odd One Out, where I discovered that the man from my past might be wrong. Here was a whole selection of artists, many of whom I later discovered worked as freelance illustrators and designers.

The first zine I looked through at Odd One Out was Park at Night by the local illustrator Onion Peterman. Silkscreen printed by hand onto thick, navy paper, they had illustrated various figures congregating in one of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous mini-playgrounds. Yellow street lights illuminate people’s’ bodies as they lift weights, sit around, and skateboard. While Onion’s drawing style is playful and stylized, their figures emanate a recognizably quiet melancholy I had noticed during my own night park visits. Far from being flattening, their cartoons gesture at the inexplicable ambivalence of Hong Kong city life, in all of its technicolor chaos and urban mundanity.

As it turns out, being an artist is Onion Peterman’s real job. Since graduating from Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts in 2012, they’ve been silkscreen printing and making zines by hand, as well as creating murals, editorial illustrations, album covers, and most recently, a massive egg-waffle themed sticker outside Lee Gardens in Causeway Bay. While talking to them on a recent studio visit, I learn that the path less taken is never easy.

Fall in Fall out (2018) by Onion Peterman. Kaitlin Chan, Still / Loud.

Not long after graduating, Onion began teaching art classes to young children, while also setting up a silkscreen printing studio. Between freelancing as an illustrator, teaching, creating art prints, and participating in handicraft fairs, there were few moments for rest. “I was confused when I first graduated,” they recalled. “Everybody had an actual job, and I didn’t have one. I still don’t have one.” For Onion, making one’s multi-faceted self legible in a world dominated by people wielding business cards and LinkedIn profiles felt exhausting. “I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt like a loser. As one does, after graduation.”

After realizing that handicraft fairs were not the ideal place to showcase their graphic, illustrative work, they began seeking out like-minded peers. Sharing a studio with friends, at first in Kwun Tong and later in Fo Tan, helped them refine their silkscreen printing skills and develop their practice. They also began making zines after participating in an artist’s market at Osage Gallery, and were later introduced to Beatrix Pang, as well as other local zine artists. With time and practice, they felt confident enough in 2013 to approach Odd One Out about stocking their work — a turning point for the young artist.

Onion Peterman binding their zine POSITIVE VIBES ONLY!! (2019) in their studio. Kaitlin Chan, Still / Loud. Drawings by Onion Peterman.

“Making zines helped me make friends,” they explain, pointing to their collaborations in recent years, with artists such as Charlene Man, Sandy Wang, Pearl Law and Kylie Chan. “In reflecting upon 2018, I realize the importance of friendship in relation to making art.” Counter to the notion that all artists are in direct competition with each other, zine and illustration communities allow peers to share knowledge and resources in an industry that often lacks clear professional structures.

Today, Onion Peterman has not only exhibited at Odd One Out — they’ve forged ongoing partnerships with the artists who care for the space. Just last year, Onion founded Dry Run Press, a publishing initiative that allows them to work with illustrator-friends, many of whom either work or exhibit at Odd One Out, to create new publications. Each zine speaks of a playful approach to observation, as this first series allows creators to explore specific themes of their choosing, whether it be life buoys, curly hair or Greek mythology.

In paging through their zines from the past seven years, I imagine their work as an act of cumulative care. Care not only between them and their peers, but also for Hong Kong as a city. Many of their prints depict the strangers they share their commute with, as well as the curious amalgamations of plants, plastic cones, and buckets that appear throughout the city’s streets. Their illustrations lend a sense of permanence and importance to temporary structures and fleeting encounters. Through their quiet acts of observation, they assert the necessity of paying attention, even when no one is looking.

Entering Onion Peterman’s studio. Kaitlin Chan, Still / Loud. Drawings by Onion Peterman.

Onion Peterman’s work is now on view at Hong Kong Open Printshop’s exhibition  Daily Activities through May 5, 2019, as well as  See. Saw. Zine? Publish Yourself! at Taipa Artist’s Village, Macau, until July 12, 2019. Editing by Still / Loud’s Wilfred Chan.