Earlier this year we connected with an amazing placemaker in the Greater Victoria region. Sharon Lam is a visual artist who creates drawings and paintings inspired by her favourite places. Sharon chose twelve of the 600+ Little Free Libraries for this new calendar. In an interview with Teale Phelps Bondaroff, GVPN’s Pocket Places Project Lead, we heard about Sharon’s inspiration for her creative expression. We are grateful that Sharon made the time for this conversation and shared the story of how her illustrations are bringing community connection and healing through art.
Teale Phelps Bondaroff (TPB): Sharon, it’s great to connect with you. I was so excited to see your art. I first discovered it when a friend of mine and researcher with one of my research teams bought me your 2022 little free library calendar, and I was absolutely delighted to see your work depicting little free libraries. What inspired you to paint little free libraries?
Sharon Lam (SL): Hi Teale, it is such a pleasure to connect with you! I’ve admired the Placemaking Network and everything you do for the community for a long time and am absolutely delighted you reached out!
I have always loved looking at all the different little libraries around Victoria because each one has so much character and is so unique. I hope to build my own one day that can also be a seed sharing library and have definitely been scoping out the existing ones for ideas! I started drawing more Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood, Gordon Head, at the beginning of the pandemic. My Brother, Dad and I tried to go out for a walk every day after dinner and I would always look inside them to find my next book!
TPB: Now there are over 600 little free libraries in Victoria, so I have to ask, how did you select the 12 you included in your calendar? Have you painted any others?
SL: I focused mostly on illustrating the libraries in my neighborhood that I frequented the most. I’ve found some really incredible books in them over the years! After I drew a few, people started sending me photos of their favourite libraries and if they resonated with me, I’d draw those too. I definitely have a long list of more libraries to draw!
TPB: I notice you capture a lot of iconic features from around Victoria, tell me a little more about why you paint what you paint, and how you go about selecting topics for your paintings? Do you paint them en plein air?
SL: I started digitally illustrating our favourite parts of the neighborhood when my Mom entered hospice care at the end of 2019 from photographs. I drew everything I could think of for her – from parks, tiny libraries, notable trees, coffee shops to restaurants. Growing up in our family restaurant downtown, I saw my Mom pour her heart into our restaurant through her little thoughtful touches. When I began drawing our favourite places, I tried to capture as many details as possible and would delight in watching my Mom spot all of them. We were spending a lot of time in the hospital so I wanted to bring my Mom a little piece of home and to celebrate some of our most cherished memories together. It made me realize that my most treasured memories with the people I love didn’t happen away on grand vacations, but rather in the mundane little spots of everyday life. After she passed away, I found a lot of peace through grief by continuing to draw our favourite places. I hate the idea of losing any memories of my Mom so I like to draw the places we would visit together.
I drew these places for a few months and only showed my drawings to close friends and family. I didn’t really set out to start a business but when Erik, the owner of Township Coffee, encouraged me to display my work at his coffee shop I was absolutely blown away by how many people asked if they could buy prints because they also had special memories of these places. Turning my passion into a business has been immensely satisfying even though it is a lot of hard work! I aim to give back to our community by donating a percentage of my sales in April to the BC Cancer Foundation and the Victoria Hospice Society in November. After spending years alongside my Mom as these organizations supported her, I know first hand how many people they help and how much they do.
TPB: Tell me a little about your medium. What materials do you use? How do you approach your art?
SL: I usually take photos of the places I want to draw when I am out and about. When I get home, I illustrate using a program called Procreate on an Ipad Pro and then produce prints. I use a textured brush pack to draw so that it mimics the uneven brushstrokes of painting. I learned how to draw on the Ipad using online tutorials, loads of trial and error and am definitely still learning.
TPB: We also recommend reading your blog post How Art By Sharon Lam Began. Could you share what inspired you to get into painting and art?
SL: My Mom always wanted to be an artist but never had the opportunity when she was growing up. She always encouraged me to be artistic and signed up for watercolour lessons with Lenaya Chrystall when I was 14. While in university, I tried to travel as much as possible while studying hospitality and tourism. Urban sketching using watercolours became my favourite way of journaling and recording all the fantastic places I’d been.
I had wanted to try digital art for some time before my Mom was ill, but when she was finally transferred into palliative care I bought my first IPad and just never looked back! I still paint watercolours but love how digital art requires less space, is more mobile and you don’t have to wait for any paint to dry!
TPB: What do you think makes a great public space? Do you have any favourite places around Victoria?
SL: I have tons of favourite places in Victoria! After growing up in our family restaurant downtown, I continued working in hospitality at a mini donut stand in the Inner Harbour before eventually becoming a banquet captain at a few hotels. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time exploring downtown! I love the energy buskers and artisans bring to our Inner Harbour, the fascinating local history in our Chinatown and the quiet of market square.
TPB: Do you have plans to capture other LFL or sites around Victoria?
SL: I definitely do! I have a not so little folder of reference photos to draw from that I love to open whenever I encounter a creative block.
TPB: Do you have any LFL or placemaking related stories to share? An interesting interaction at a LFL, or a place that has particular significance to you, or that improved after it was transformed?
SL: I think the kinds of people who create tiny libraries are passionate about books and making our community better. Usually after I illustrate one, I like to send a print to the owner to say thank you for making our community a brighter and more unique place! I love these libraries a lot and know that a lot of work goes into making them and taking care of them. It’s been a wonderful way to connect with likeminded people. There are a few people that I’ve befriended and I like to stock their libraries with bookmarks when I have leftover paper from making art prints. I print all sorts of bookmarks, from beach scenes, to cat drawings to miniature tiny libraries. I think certain books come to you when you need them, and like to think the same of bookmarks. I’ve found so many wonderful books through these and love giving back in my own way.
TPB: Sharon, thank you for telling your story with the Placemaking Network!
All image credits: Art by Sharon Lam