She blends right in at Frank & Dean, with the crimson brick walls and the photographs of pop-culture icons plastered on a giant corkboard. Overhead, the blue glow of a neon sign that screams COFFEE seems to fuel the vibrant chatter of customers who look ready to get back to work in their respective studios. Like clockwork, every few minutes, the sound of the espresso machine lets out a churn in the background. The scene is a cut-out portrait of the inner mechanisms of a growing, bustling city. “I want to pursue something, always,” Abbey Sy says as she lays down her copy of a creative magazine called The Great Discontent in the table. The Great Discontent, a profound unrest, harmony in chaotic motion.
Graduating from DLSU last 2014, Abbey Sy’s career has gone nowhere but up. After landing a job at a prominent advertising agency, she continued to do freelance work on the side. She worked for more than eight hours a day, glued to her laptop, both at the office and in car rides going to and from home. While she was just starting to create a name for herself online with her artworks, she was juggling her career in the corporate agency she worked for. She was living two lives. When the clock strikes midnight, the spell is broken and the sparkling carriage turns into a decrepit pumpkin. The question is: Which of those lives was temporary?
After delivering a motivational TEDx talk in UP Manila last February, the answer slowly dawned on her. “If here I was telling people to pursue their artistic dreams, why was I still at my corporate job?” A few months after that, she quit her 9-to-5 and decided to pursue her work as an artist. Coming from a strict Chinese family, it wasn’t easy, especially since she knew there was no comfort and security in freelance work. But she affirms the credo of all artists who have made sacrifices to take on greater, more worthwhile uncertainties: “The thrill of it is knowing that you’re doing something for yourself. It’s contributing to whatever the community [is] that you’re part of.”
An emerging new artist for hand-lettering, she has since gained around fifty thousand followers on Instagram and a wide readership on her blog. After starting out as a one-man team, she contracted a few interns to create content and manage her website, and almost every week, she teaches hands-on workshops on the art of lettering in bookstores and cafes. An especially high note was when she got the well-known notebook company Moleskine as a creative partner. However, the crowning moment was in the release of her book, The ABCs of Hand Lettering, last June.
Celebrating this achievement, she’s still buzzing from the caffeine and attention she’s received from nationwide bookstores and artists alike, especially on social media. But Abbey knows that this is no fairytale. There is no fairy godmother, no glass slippers, and no prince. It’s a hustle. This affair doesn’t have to end at midnight — not if she doesn’t want it to.
Abbey is walking towards the turbulent weather of creative fame, but what exactly lies behind the young artist making waves on social media? The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, in Four in the Morning, describes the titular hour as “The hour when the wind blows from extinguished stars / The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us”. In times when we choose not to occupy the spaces in the world meant for us, what fills?
The DLSU alumna can be defined as an artist, a creative entrepreneur, an author, and a letterer, and a moment collector, but when she’s not all that, deep in her metaphysical ‘four in the morning’, she describes herself as an introverted traveler. “I usually try to travel alone once a year. Every day, I have to deal with so many people, [so] having time to work alone and be with myself is sacred because it gives me more time to think of ideas and conceptualize. It helps me rejuvenate,” she shares. In a segment on her blog entitled Life in Transit, she shares her watercolor remakes of the architecture of beautiful places, like Paris, Amsterdam, and Cambodia.
Expounding on her love for traveling, she says, “Travel has taught me how to be independent. It gives me more liberation as a person… it has helped me be open to new things and ideas. It keeps me more fueled.” Her intricate drawings serve as an emblem of her personal advocacy to ‘moment collecting’. “The experience of going there, the simple things, it makes it more memorable. I don’t like drawing out of those experiences, it’s how I feel when I was there.”
Usually, in her hand-lettering pieces, the words that she commits to paper are about creativity, passion, travel, and exploration. “There is too much sadness in the world, and you have to light up people by making them happy with art,” she shares. “It is [also] a gentle reminder to myself because I need a hit in the head sometimes to realize what’s important.” She owes the creation of her book to that constant hit in the head by her book team, as well as to her manager, and novelist John Green, whose books spoke to and inspired her.
Why delve into the art of hand-lettering in the first place? “I just wasn’t satisfied that it [words] was written down,” she says. And truthfully, she alludes to the force that drove many of the greatest artists. Robert Frost called it a ‘lump in the throat’ while Van Gogh named it an ‘irresistible momentum’—it is, in many ways, her own version of a great discontent.
She fondly recalls the first time she took the risk of putting herself out there. She joined a competition when she was younger and drew a still-life painting of a bowl of vegetables. She won 5th place, but the memory of the passerby who gave her her first criticism became the first hurdle she had to overcome. She told herself, “Keep going. You don’t have to have to figure it out, just keep doing that one thing you find meaning in.”
In terms of overcoming her previous doubts and insecurities, she shares, “I always tell myself I wanted to prove [my] 17-year old self na mali ako.” After her success with The ABCs of Lettering, she has done exactly that, but she now faces a different sort of challenge—managing the expectations of followers and fans on social media. She explains, however, “The validation in Instagram is not real. The most important validation is self-validation.”
While it’s hard to stay afloat in the business, Abbey Sy is hopeful. “I’m curious with what’s happening next. It’s always going to lead to something. I don’t focus too much on the end goal, I focus on the journey. You can’t guarantee that your end goal [is] going to happen, so just enjoy the road with all its detours, bumps in the way. It all builds up to wherever you’re headed to.”
Abbey Sy finally says, “Luck is always going to be there, it’s just going to be a part it [success]. But you make your own luck to survive.” Like all diners in growing, bustling cities, the cacophony of chatter and plates starts again as the day begins. The morning coffee brews. The only way to survive is to embrace the profound unrest—the uncertainty of it all. Inevitably, she checks her phone and hastily says goodbye, saying she has errands to run. She clutches her magazine, slings her bag, and reenters a world that stops for no one.