Cheng Wei Tieng used to work in the advertising industry, starting as a graphic designer and rising through the ranks to become an art director. Although she was already involved in a creative role, in her free time, she still liked to sketch and draw for herself.
“I started drawing on rompers and T-shirts for my son, which my friends spotted and really liked, so they asked me to draw this and that for them as well,” she explains. The growing demand from friends and acquaintances led to the start of the Black Milk Project.
When asked about the name of her company, Cheng laughs and says, “It was quite random. I started with rompers and children’s stuff, so that’s the milk part. White milk is very normal and black is my favourite colour, so I thought Black Milk Project sounded very cool.”
Cheng registered her company seven years ago but only began focusing on customised drawings — to be framed or printed on items such as bags and T-shirts — in the third year. She then had a pivotal idea: “I thought, why not teach people to draw and then I would print their work on T-shirts, rompers, bags or pillows.”
As brilliant as her idea was, she had two major speed bumps to overcome. “I am a very introverted person, so the thought of teaching a class and interacting with people was daunting. Also, knowing how to draw does not mean I would know how to run a business,” she admits. She decided to make use of her experience in the advertising world. “Because I’m in the creative industry, I’m familiar with how to package my brand and as I was working on a project basis, I was used to working around the clock.”
Classes were first held at the café below her studio in SS13. “When I teach, I think it’s important to be genuine because when you become friends with your students, you build relationships. I give my best when I teach, so my students can feel that I want them to come here and really learn something,” says Cheng.
Her workshops were a hit, which meant a steady increase in the number of classes as well as a variety of new activities, such as watercolour painting. She then realised that the café was too small a venue, and began looking for a new location. It was around this time that she decided to take the leap and go into this artistic platform full time.
With the help of her team of three, Cheng has developed her company into a creative playground that provides workshops — which sometimes include guest artists — and sells customisable T-shirts, rompers and unique stationery.
It has now been two years since the move to her beautiful studio in Subang Jaya, where Black Milk Project holds workshops every month and even hosts corporate events or team-building activities for companies.
Moving forward, Cheng hopes to make a bigger impact in the community. She is currently taking a course in psychotherapy, which will equip her with the ability to use art as a form of therapy to help people cope with grief.
She believes artists need to be disciplined and start their career by working for others before striking out on their own. “Being an artist and running a business are very different. There are a lot of things you can learn by working with other people because sustaining a business is not just about your art. It is about how sustainable you are in the face of adversity.”
Just like any skill, art requires practice every day, Cheng asserts. “I think it’s about conditioning yourself to see inspiration everywhere. I’m constantly looking for things to be inspired by. It is a muscle — you have to work at it,” she explains.
“The art community is very tight-knit and although we are located all across the world, we maintain a close relationship online,” says Cheng. This closeness has allowed her to teach workshops in other platforms in Penang and Singapore. Soon, she will host one in Los Angeles, the US.
In order to cultivate close ties with local artists, Cheng has gone the extra mile. “I invited all the teachers, artists and even the studio owners to come and get to know each other at our studio. It was a really great thing. Everybody talked and shared stories of their struggles as artists. We give each other support.”
Pendidikan Seni is an art bazaar by Black Milk Project. The second run will take place from Dec 7 to 9 with a Christmas edition twist. Register for the workshops or see more here. This article first appeared on Oct 8, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.