When you first look at an oil painting by Atchalinee “Aim” Kesornsook, it’s hard not to be captivated by the cute doll-like faces and the soft, sweet colour palette she uses to depict her characters. In one piece, called Alice, a tranquil scene depicts a blond-haired, doe-eyed girl standing in a field full of kittens with butterflies fluttering in the air. In another, Mina, a girl is enveloped by thin branches and surrounded by white flowers, a bunny and butterflies. However, if you step a little closer to appreciate the details, you’ll find more macabre, grim elements that provoke deeper thoughts about the relationship between pleasure and pain in our lives.
At 38 years old, Aim only made her public art debut early last month in “Plus Four”, a joint exhibition with three other artists at Duke at Gaysorn, but her journey in the world of art started when she was a little girl – against her parent’s approval.
“Like most parents, they wanted to see their children get ‘real’ jobs with financial security, and unfortunately being an artist wasn’t one of them,” Aim says. “But I knew I had a gift in art.”
After attending high school in the UK, Aim went on to study engineering in the United States to please her parents. She excelled in all her subjects, but the yearning for artistic expression was too difficult to ignore.
“I try hard at everything all the time, even with things that I don’t really like,” she says. “But my heart was not there. I felt empty.”
She left engineering school and spent a year studying art at Northern Virginia Community College. Armed with a new portfolio of sketches and drawings, one professor noticed the intricate details in her work and suggested she pursue a degree in graphic design. At the time, Aim didn’t really know what graphic design was, but the idea appealed to her mother who thought it was a decent compromise between a sustainable career and an artistic whim.
“Again, I did very well in school because I gave it my all and graduated with honours, but deep down I knew that it was not really my true calling,” she says.
After graduating, Aim returned to Thailand and worked as a graphic designer at Krungthai Card for three years before eventually becoming a full-time freelance graphic designer for various corporate companies. At the time, life was good. Aim’s various jobs earned her a decent living, which she promptly squandered on antique dolls from France and Germany.
That all changed in an instant, however, when one day Aim suddenly lost all feeling in her back. “My back just went numb, and I was terrified,” she says. “I was in my early 30s, and I hadn’t painted or taken a chance on fine art like I set my mind to. I had a moment where I seriously thought I was going to die without fulfilling my dreams.”
It turns out that all those years of hard work were coming back to haunt her. The strain on her back muscles from countless hours of work had caused them to deteriorate significantly. At the young age of 32, she had the back of a 70-year-old, doctors said. She went through long physiotherapy and a series of painful trigger point injections only to learn that her lifeless muscles could not be revived.
“If I kept postponing my dreams, how would I know it would ever happen? If not now, when?” she says. “Who knows how long we’ll all live?”
Aim took seven months off her normally hectic graphic design schedule to study art in Florence, Italy. There, she studied masterpieces from the Renaissance, her favourite art period, as well as other forms of classical art and architecture. Little did Aim know that, despite the long road to a fine art career, she was ready to turn over a new leaf.
She made the transformation from graphic designer to visual artist, culminating in her recent contribution to the “Plus Four” exhibition – showcasing her pleasing but spiritually haunting pop surrealism.
“People think I’m depressed, but I’m not,” Aim clarifies. “Unlike many other artists, I don’t have any trauma in life. I would even say that I had it easy. My inspiration comes from things around me – people I’ve met, news, media and stories I’ve heard. I’m just very sensitive and empathetic, easily moved by others’ hardship and tragedies.”
If there is one word to describe Aim it would be “perceptive”. Leonardo da Vinci famously said a good artist will see what others can only glimpse. There are metaphors and clues to Aim’s inspiration all over her work. The field of kittens in Alice portrays Aim’s sympathy towards the stray cats she sees and rescues on a regular basis. Some cannot walk properly, others need to be caged for life to prevent the spread of disease, she can only try to comfort them in their pain – which is why Alice blows butterflies around the kittens for them to play with.
As her work shows, Aim has an impressive ability to peer through life’s picture-perfect façade and observe a darker side that maims and hurts – but at the same time makes a person whole.
“Mina is a depiction of a nightmare,” says Aim. “She’s alive and hopeful, but there are also terrors and traumas in her life. That’s why she has a scar. The pleasure and pain, the light and dark, the beauty and the ugliness co-exist and it’s up to you to choose what you see and acknowledge.”
Modern yet nostalgic, Aim’s work alludes to her obsession with antique art, ancient dolls, old photographs, historic buildings as well as surreal works by artists like Salvatore Dali, Frida Kahlo and Rene Margitte, which helps soften her hard-hitting messages with refined details and soothing colours.
“I’m probably a child trapped in an adult life,” she says. “I still like cartoons. I like dolls. I’m not living the conventional adult life where, at my age, you’re supposed to secure a career and start settling down. At the same time, I’ve lived and experienced life enough to know that it’s not always beautiful even though it may appear that way. Everyone gets scars along the way.”
Aim might have had a late start, but her future is surely promising. All five of her paintings at “Plus Four” were sold, and she has secured a deal to have her first solo exhibition at Duke next year.
“I don’t buy dolls anymore,” she says. “Since I started painting, blowing my income on dolls feels silly. I almost died working so hard for that money, and look at how I spent it. Getting my career in fine art finally going really fulfils and completes me. I could have done this much earlier, but my art would have been different. I really don’t mind taking the long road if it makes me who I am today.”