Creative Capital: The harpist who specialises in publishing educational children's books
27-year-old Singaporean Laura Peh wants to make an impact on future generations while incorporating her background in music, art history and business.
You would think that being an accomplished professional musician, or working at a respected art gallery while also advising a non-profit foundation would satisfy anyone. If you’re both of these things, it’s hard to imagine having time to take on other challenges. Nonetheless, 27-year-old Singaporean Laura Peh, who is all of these things, decided last year that she wanted to start her own business.
Leaving the Hong Kong art gallery where she was working, Peh moved back to Singapore in April last year and launched Cinnamon Art Publishing, a boutique publisher specialising in beautiful, educational children’s books that celebrate art and creativity.
The first series of books tell the lives of six renowned artists: David Hockney, Wu Guanzhong, Louise Bourgeois, Nam June Paik, Gustav Klimt, and Piet Mondrian. The first two books were available last year, while the other four begin shipping at the end of the month.
LOOKING AT WHAT YOU’VE DONE THE LAST YEAR, IT FEELS LIKE YOU’RE A MASTER MULTI-TASKER. IS IT HARD TO MAKE A LIVING AS A FULL-TIME MUSICIAN OR ARE YOU JUST ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE THAT HAS TO DO MULTIPLE THINGS TO BE FULFILLED?
Growing up, I always had a myriad of activities that kept me occupied. Throughout my childhood and early teens, this included piano lessons, violin lessons, harp lessons, competitive swimming and tuition for different subjects. At Methodist Girls' School, I was in the cross-country team, swimming team, hand-bell ensemble, Girl Guides and string orchestra. I also completed a few triathlons, played harp at hospices, and was a member of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra.
I was always more interested in my after-school activities than academic work. When I was 12 years old, I remember being called into the then-principal's office and being reprimanded for requesting time-off from school to participate in an international harp competition in Wales. Her words left me in tears, but I went anyway and that music experience changed my life.
During my university days in London, I volunteered at museums on weekends and completed seven internships over two years. It was a great learning experience. When I moved back to Singapore in 2017, I wanted to continue travelling and pursuing different interests, and was lucky enough to find roles that could allow that flexibility.
YOU LAUNCHED A BOOK PUBLISHING COMPANY IN 2020. TELL ME ABOUT CINNAMON ART PUBLISHING.
For the past two years, I've been thinking about the best way to make an impact on future generations while incorporating my background in music, art history and business.
When I moved back to Singapore from Hong Kong in April last year, I started Cinnamon Art Publishing with $70,000 of my own savings. It is the publishing arm behind our children's book brand Cinnamon Art Stories. We focus on telling stories about the humanities through engaging illustrations. The books are created with children under 12 in mind, and each collection will have a targeted reading level between age five to 12 years old.
Every book contains a glossary, reflections and activity pages which encourage imagination, creativity and critical thinking. It's also great for parent-child conversations.
As a design-led, socially responsible company, a lot of thought goes into every product that we create. This means sourcing ethically and locally, printing in small batches to reduce overproduction, and opting for recyclable materials when financially viable. When our books are passed down, we hope they will evoke happy memories from childhood.
DO YOU FEEL THAT CHILDREN, HERE OR OVERSEAS, AREN’T GETTING STRONG ENOUGH FOUNDATIONS IN THE ARTS?
Unlike in Europe, the arts has never been a priority in Singapore. I remember visiting museums and theatre productions as part of compulsory school trips and my parents would bring me to concerts at the Victoria Concert Hall.
However, it was only when I moved to Paris to study music at age 15, that I truly began appreciating the arts. A first visit to the Louvre soon became a biweekly affair and my interest in the visual arts grew from there. I was exposed to the highest-quality exhibitions, concerts, ballet, opera and theatre productions and that made a huge difference to my life.
I'm excited about how my peers and our younger colleagues will change Singapore's arts and arts education scene in the years to come.
HOW HAVE YOU DECIDED ON THE SUBJECTS FOR THE BOOKS?
While researching children's books, it was difficult to find high-quality printed books that had educational content on artsy subjects. That's how I chose to focus on the humanities. Our first release, Exploring Art, tells the life stories of six artists of different nationalities and artistic styles.
We have future collections on music and mindful consumption planned for 2021. By introducing these subjects to young children, we encourage them to see the world in a different light and open their minds to new possibilities.
NONE OF THE BOOKS ARE ABOUT LOCAL ARTISTS YET. IS THIS A CONSCIOUS DECISION?
It is purely a business decision. As a young brand, our choices need to make financial sense. For the Exploring Art collection, we plan to include at least one female and one Asian artist in each release. We might include a Southeast Asian artist sometime down the road.
DO YOU SEE THE AUDIENCE FOR THE BOOKS MORE GLOBAL OR LOCAL FOR THE TIME BEING?
Since launching pre-orders in Oct, 85 per cent of our customers have been international with the most interest coming from Hong Kong, North America and the UK. We would love to see more local interest in our books and are in discussion with retail partners here.
ARE YOU COMMISSIONING AND PUBLISHING THE WORKS, OR ARE YOU ALSO WRITING THEM?
At the moment, I'm writing the text and overseeing creative direction for all the books. Specific skill sets are needed for each collection, and my eyes and ears are always peeled for potential collaborators.
We also work with a graphic designer as well as specialist writers that contribute to our online journal, covering different aspects of art, education and mindfulness. Each book takes around three months to produce from confirming the illustration style to print-ready files, which is almost unheard of in traditional publishing.
I NOTICED THE CURRENT SELECTION ARE ALL ILLUSTRATED BY THE SAME PERSON – SIENNY SEPTIBELLA. HOW DID YOU DISCOVER HER WORK?
Similar to fashion, jewellery and handbag collections, it's important to have a cohesive aesthetic. Bella is also 27, studied graphic design in Singapore, and is now an accomplished illustrator based in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Bella and I have actually never met in-person! When I was scouring Behance for creatives to bring my vision to life, I came across Bella's portfolio and immediately reached out to her. After chatting over email, we decided to work on the Exploring Art collection together.
We connected in Jan 2020 and had planned to meet in Jakarta in April last year, but it didn't happen due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions. Our communication to date has been entirely through email and WhatsApp. Thankfully, technology makes everything so easy.
WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR CINNAMON ART PUBLISHING?
We hope to establish an international brand of timeless children's books that Asia can be proud of. Our brand symbol is the stalk of a cinnamon plant, with leaf buds and blooming flowers. This represents children at different stages of early childhood. Our books help shape and cultivate them to grow into a tree that sees the world in a different light.
WHAT WAS YOUR OWN CHILDHOOD LIKE?
I'm the youngest of three children. Growing up with two older brothers, I was trained to be resilient and independent from a young age. While we had an admittedly privileged, as well as sheltered, upbringing, we went about our own lives and didn't spend much time together as a family.
I had a full schedule and spent free time playing with my pet rabbits and dog as well as talking to my toys. I loved having imaginary conversations and would narrate a whole school day with them using names of my real-life classmates. In public, I was a quiet but observant child.
DO YOU STILL PREFORM AND TEACH AS A HARPIST?
I've made an effort to be active in the local music scene every time I'm back in Singapore. I was invited to teach at a summer course in Hong Kong in 2018 and performed a solo recital in Singapore in 2019. I currently maintain a home studio of students, both in-person and online.
WHAT DREW YOU TO THE HARP WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG?
I was attending violin lessons at a music school when my first harp teacher started teaching there. I was nine years old and my mother thought it would be nice to learn a new instrument. Although I started learning piano and violin at a younger age, I showed the most potential in harp.
WHAT IS A MISUNDERSTANDING PEOPLE OFTEN HAVE WHEN THEY HEAR YOU ARE A PROFESSIONAL HARPIST?
Most people think I play in an orchestra. Like a visual artist or actor, there are many avenues that a musician can work in, apart from playing in an orchestra and teaching. That's the beauty of the arts.
In Singapore, there still seems to be a stigma in pursuing unconventional careers like the performing arts. It takes a unique skill set and a level of talent to be able to pursue creative fields at a professional level.
YOU HAVE LIVED IN EUROPE AS WELL AS HONG KONG. DO YOU THINK APPRECIATION OF THE ARTS, AND BY ASSOCIATION, THE ENCOURAGEMENT OF CREATIVITY IN OUR YOUNG, IS VERY DIFFERENT HERE VERSUS SOME OF THE PLACES YOU HAVE LIVED OR VISITED?
Singapore still has a long way to go in terms of mind-set and lifestyle. In mature cultural economies like New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong, arts appreciation and arts support is an essential part of their lifestyle.
There is much more engagement with the young, with a personal hands-on approach to arts education, peer-to-peer sharing and community engagement. Apart from arts appreciation, the scale of philanthropy and donor stewardship is much less developed in Singapore compared to other first-world countries. Until Singapore reaches a level of communal cultural maturity, it will be difficult for us to truly become a world-class arts hub.
Our nation's regulations surrounding public performances, exhibitions and publishing hinders the development of our creativity. The best creative practitioners are independent-minded, passionate and expressive. It is difficult to find inspiration in Singapore and staying here for prolonged periods of time can result in groupthink and complacency.
I NOTICED YOU HAVE WORKED FOR A NON-PROFIT ORGANISATION AND A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE. IS PURPOSE AND GIVING BACK A BIG PART OF YOUR LIFE?
I'm passionate about women's, children's and arts-related causes. When I moved back to Singapore from London in 2017, I worked on UN Women's SNOW fundraising gala for a few months before joining CRIB, a non-profit social enterprise that empowers women to become successful entrepreneurs.
I also began advising Kris Foundation, an organisation dedicated to supporting young musicians in Singapore. When I received a job offer at a blue-chip art gallery in Hong Kong in 2018, I flew back to Singapore monthly for meetings with Kris Foundation.
When I was a student, I was able to give time to volunteering and joined a few young patron programmes of arts organisations. Since I started working, I've been giving small amounts each year to arts organisations in Singapore and Hong Kong. Giving back early is important, and no amount is ever too small. I've met many people who think about the benefits they will receive or connections they could make before they consider giving to an organisation. If I believe in the cause, the organisation's purpose and have something to learn from it, I’m happy to support.
WHAT’S IN STORE FOR YOU THIS YEAR? ANY EXCITING PLANS TO SHARE?
We are launching an international haiku competition for children in Feb. Our Exploring Art collection is being translated to Chinese and we plan to release new collections on music and mindful consumption. When the COVID-19 situation improves overseas, we hope to start doing seasonal pop-ups.