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A Conversation with Educator Storyteller, Nor Azhar Ishak

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

A lot of artists never have their work seen by the world. But not for Nor Azhar Ishak (NAI), an Educator Storyteller whose children's books incorporate his mesmerising paintings and a spray of educational elements especially on environmental awareness. Not only had he recently organised his ‘The Ocean Wanderer’ Exhibition at The Museum of Picture Book Art, his works were displayed at Tsutaya Books at Pavilion Bukit Jalil earlier this year.

Euan: We first met at ‘Alam Nan Tunggal’, an event organised by Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) Museum and Art Gallery, which aimed to promote local artists and support their entrepreneurial journey. How do you feel about existing efforts in Malaysia that support local talents, in general?

NAI: My personal opinion is, we can do more. There are many organisations out there that provide support by offering awards to encourage the making of children’s books. That motivates people to write and illustrate good projects.

BNM targeted exhibiting art, and I think they were surprised when I showed up with children’s books other than my paintings. The other artists chosen were so unique. In fact, most were younger and studied art- I didn't, I was from an engineering and science background. I find it hard to break into the art scene because people tend to celebrate either young artists, or the most experienced ones. Good thing BNM set no restrictions on age, and I even met two other older exhibitors. We so commonly talk about inclusivity in religion, sex and race, but age is important too. We need to celebrate everybody who does art, regardless of their age. The event itself created a network and so we could all share knowledge with each other- like some of the younger artists taught me about merchandising! Euan: Interestingly, the event in question had a different theme each year. In 2022, it chose to highlight and gather nature-inspired artists, and you’re one of them! For you, did the passion for art come first or the love for nature?

NAI: I would say both, but I’m leaning a bit towards the love for nature there. I have always been drawn to nature since I was young. My way of fighting the cause for the environment was simply what I could do- art and writing. Naturally, when you draw, you draw what you like. I don't draw people so much, except for my book ‘Across The Stars’, which technically speaking is not much about our nature as the characters explored outer space and alien planets in the book. But still, what I have included in the story was vegetation and an underwater world on the alien planet, all from my imagination. So it always doesn't go far off the brand! Euan: Your picture books for children brilliantly combine art, education and environmental awareness. As a multi-genre artist myself, I am incredibly in awe. How did you first have the idea of a cross-genre project?

NAI: So you asked me if it’s art first or nature first, my actual answer would be education first. All this work, in the end, is to educate. I would like to help children grow as education is just the best thing we can give them. Although I worked in engineering, I loved teaching more, so I did training for my company. Even before that, I was a teacher for a few months. So the core of it would be my passion in educating the young- it drives me. All these cross-genre projects and story-telling simply became instruments to serve the purpose of education.

Euan: Could you share a bit about the project you are currently working on? Tell us how you find directions in its making.

NAI: One of my projects now is about a decorator crab- it picks up sea anemones and wears them as camouflage from predators. And my character here is worried about trash accumulation in the ocean, so instead of decorative items, it puts on trash. There you see, we can go beyond story-telling by adding an awareness or a lesson there for education purposes. When we make children’s picture books, we want the children to have an immersive experience, in order to make an impact on them. You want to hear that on their 2nd or 3rd reading, they discover something new. I also encourage parents to read with their children and ask the right questions to help kids explore. As you know, to read is not just to verbally read the words, it’s about consuming and absorbing lessons that are embedded in the material.


Euan: Do you normally have a story in mind before you start drawing, or do you draw what your inspiration brings you and link them up to create a story? NAI: Both, but the proper way is to be structured- craft a story before the illustration comes in, it’s what I would teach people when I conduct workshops. However, before the classes end, I would always tell them to break the rules once they are familiar with them. Euan: Do you ever get feedback from children about your books?


NAI: I do ask them what they like or not like about the books. Sometimes they surprise me by saying things I don't even think of, as every kid demonstrates a different understanding of values from my stories. That would always be a pleasant surprise for me, as it helps me discover perspectives about my characters too. Thus, I don’t ever announce the ‘moral’ of my stories when I do story-telling. Every kid should have the liberty to explore what points they pick up based on how the image of the characters takes form in their mind. Most of the time, as we discuss further, it could validate their thoughts and help them gain confidence to express, without limiting their imagination.


Euan: You explore different forms of work so aggressively- from being a judge at an international story-telling competition in Indonesia to organising regular acrylic workshops locally. What areas would you like to explore next? Could we expect any new forms of expression from you? Maybe (say, a few cool examples would be) theatrical production, body art and sand art?

NAI: I did talk possibilities with potential collaborators about Augmented Reality, but that remains a concept for now. My teacher, the late Yusof Gajah, did have his work turned into an animation, but no one has approached me yet. Maybe one day, who knows, and I’ll be thrilled to explore. The idea of expanding to different forms is essentially less about selling more books but more about facilitating the messages in the art to reach bigger audiences.


At the end of the day, as an artist myself, I could absolutely resonate with NAI’s excitement fighting for what he is passionate about. It’s all about creating what we find beauty in and hoping our work would make a long-lasting impact on our audiences. Our conversation took place over cups of fruit juice and plates of aglio olio, which he and his wife so generously served even though they were fasting during the month of Ramadan. Now the article is getting too long! If you’re still here reading, thank you! I had the hardest time cutting out many enthralling topics to keep this article at a read-able length. However, I will certainly consider developing the rest of the content we have collected into other works.


I am incredibly excited with where NAI brings his career and how it will add value to all the children, or even adults, out there. Before we left, I purchased a copy of one of his latest publications, The Ocean Wanderer, and got him to leave his signature and a message. The book consists of one of the most intricate series of artwork made into a hardcover children’s book- what grandiose effort put into it. According to NAI, many of his friends were intrigued to get a copy before even getting to know its content- that shows how thrilled everyone was to support his obvious hard work! If you are interested in his work, check out his Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/norazharishak/


By,

Euan Thum,

Journalist,

Charisma Movement 22/23.

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