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Sharing the Love – Art for Animals’ Sake

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Art scholar Sophie Vallis brings new meaning to “Sit!” by painting portraits of DB animals, and turning her passion into a philanthropic pursuit.
Elizabeth Kerr reports.
PHOTOS BY Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

Landscape in post image 600x400

It’s a blazing hot Monday afternoon in Discovery Bay, and so the conversation with 17-year-old student, artist and philanthropist Sophie Vallis invariably turns to the weather, to the oppressive humidity of Darwi in December, and the desert like-conditions of Toledo. It’s comfortable inside the coffee shop where Sophie sits with her mother Choi Fong, who’s been convinced to sit down and join the rambling conversation.

Our chat touches on the melting pot that is DB, picking up Cantonese (mostly bad language) through movies, university applications, jetlag strategies, the psychology of McDonald’s restaurants, young adult fiction and how dull perspective (the art law) is. Sophie is going to have to get over her dislike of Art 101, if she’s to study it at university. “I could use some help with colour theory,” she admits with a gentle chuckle.

Sophie is taking a break in what’s going to be a busy summer, which is pretty much planned out at this point in mid-July. She’s getting ahead on school work for her upcoming final year so she’s not swamped come autumn, and she’s also checking out universities; Melbourne’s RMIT is the current frontrunner. Then there’s the tour of Hong Kong’s art galleries, ideally one each week, which was recommended by her art teacher at Aberdeen’s Victoria Shanghai Academy (VSA).

“My art teacher, Mrs Chiu, told us to visit the galleries, take pictures and keep a journal, because we can use that for inspiration for our final pieces next year,” Sophie says. “She gave us a huge list of galleries. We’re going to hit M+ this week.”

And of course, Sophie will continue to paint DB pets. Not painting on them, but creating portraits. More onthat in a bit.

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST

Born in Perth, because Hong Kong native Choi wanted to be near the family that had emigrated there for the birth of her first child, Sophie was back in Hong Kong at two months old, and grew up in DB, where she developed a love of art. She started drawing and modelling with clay as a kid and just kept going once she started school, graduating to sketching then painting.

Sophie was an autodidact until higher level classes in secondary, and it’s easy to see why. She is curious, perceptive and remarkably conversant for her age. She’s a fan of Gustav Klimt and his “decorative use of gold and metals,” and a mention of Caravaggio elicits excited declarations about light and shadow. But her interest stems originally from the usual kid stuff.

“I started drawing animals as a kid because I loved them. I watched every National Geographic documentary there was,” she laughs. “I’m particularly attracted to big cats and wolves. For the big cats it’s definitely because they’re so full of elegance and grace and I very, very much appreciate how efficient they are. Nature’s little killing machine, packaged in a really interesting form.”

That passion ultimately translated into a scholarship from VSA – two in fact. Sophie displayed enough skill in primary school for her art teacher to float her name as a candidate, and she applied for her scholarship for the 2021/2022 academic year herself.

ART FOR A CAUSE

So, Sophie has parlayed her good fortune into charitable venture and set up a portrait studio. For pets. (Contact her by WhatsApp at 9874 4503). “I thought if I can capture the majesty of big cats, I should be able to capture the feelings people have for their pets in a portrait.” She’s been doing them since March – a lot of dogs so far, no cats yet, because let’s face it. Getting a cat to sit for a portrait is nigh impossible. Sophie usually works from a photograph to turn out watercolours (really popular) or sketches up to A4 size. The money she charges for the work is donated to the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org).

She considered donating to a local Hong Kong charity, but soon got to thinking bigger picture. A Hong Kong charity would likely zero in on local species, Sophie reasons, “and I really wanted to help more globally. I was looking at a lot of charities when I found Wildlife Conservation Society. They’re also trying to protect habitats and ecosystems. Because without the habitat, where do the animals live, and when you take one specie out of an ecosystem, the whole thing collapses.” It’s not an official partnership or anything formal. “I just click the donate button on their website,” Sophie explains.

Ironically, Sophie has no pets, and is sure a conspiracy is afoot. “When I go off to university, I have a feeling my parents are going to get a dog. Just after I’m gone,” she says, shaking her head. Still, she’s done around half a dozen paintings so far, with each portrait being a remarkable, realistic likeness of a beloved pet.

A couple were so well received they were properly framed, a point of pride for Sophie. “Pets are a very interesting part of people’s lives. They’re very much a constant,” she explains of her portraiture. “Having an animal is uplifting and positive. You come home and there’s something waiting for you. It’s about unconditional love, and it’s a special relationship. I think people want to express how much they appreciate it.”

PAINTING IS SELF DISCOVERY

The Vallis family, which includes younger brother Nicholas and dad Paul, a native of Bermuda, won’t be travelling during the break like they usually do, so Sophie plans to keep doing the portraits, in between hanging out with friends and catching up on her reading. She’s just finished Madeline Miller’s Circe (“I like classics. There’s a reason why they’re classics.”).

She ticked off Emma recently, and Anna Karenina (“A struggle for the first 400 pages”) a while back. She’s also experimenting with media and subjects, and has already decided oil is her favourite (“I just love the texture.”). She struggles with landscapes because there’s no expression to capture. Despite the landscape issues (which she’s working on) and that perspective bias, Sophie is confident she’ll be making art a career. Fortunately, she won’t get a fight from Choi, a British Airways staffer, or her dad. “I’m
happy she’s passionate about art. I just hope she finds a way to make it a viable career,” comments Choi.

Sophie, for one, thoroughly pooh-poohs the myth of the starving artist, waving it off with a delightfully knowing: “Everything is based on visual cues. There’s just so much out there that I could do.” Go get it, girl!

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