Urban back alleys are in-between spaces where weeds rule and long-forgotten things go to rust. Artist Meei Ling Ng found her latest inspiration in those unnoticed places, though, constructing a small and colorful world out of ordinary things.
That world includes a lot of cats, strays and house pets alike. Ng, 54, turned those cats into central characters in her new series of small, handmade books. Ng, like most Philadelphians during the COVID-19 pandemic, spent a lot of time in her own neighborhood and began to have “magical thoughts” about the alley behind her Graduate Hospital home.
“I began to notice that all kind of animals live in this back alley,” she said on a recent weekday afternoon at Union Baptist Church’s Garden of Eden, a community garden at 19th and Fitzwater, near her house. “I thought that they must have some kind of secret life — you know, how they live their entire life just through these alleys. You’d be surprised. It’s cats, squirrels, opossum, even groundhogs. Also foxes, but they are rare.”
The three-volume series, called Secret Lives in the Neighborhood, are stories where animal lives mirror real-life people dealing with everyday issues, including homelessness and food insecurity. The 10-page books feature recycled paper prints of Ng’s original acrylic paintings. She binds the books, using hemp string, and sells them for $80 and up through social media.
“I’m an artist and I like to do everything myself,” she said.
Ng declined to say how many books she’s sold — ”it’s not thousands” — and is in the planning phase for volume 4.
“Number four is a secret,” she said. “I don’t know how many I’ll do. I’ll just keep going.”
Ng, an urban farmer known to magically transform empty and overgrown lots into lush gardens, recalls seeing similar animals, and having the same active imagination about them, as a child in Singapore. She was raised in the village of Lim Chu Kang, in a rural corner of the city-state. She said she drew and doodled on every surface she could find, later attending Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, where she studied illustration and graphic design — lots of “apples and human figures.” She later moved to Philadelphia to study 3D technology at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
“I would draw in the sand with a stick and I was oftentimes inspired by nature,” she said. “We had farm animals and wild animals and lots of birds. That was back then. Today, Singapore is one big city.”
Ng is a true multimedia artist who often works with discarded items, everything from bottles to plastic straws. According to her website, Ng “seeks to alter the living space of the city,” and some of her favorite projects include community gardens and urban farms. She was an artist-in-residence at the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission at North 13th and Vine Streets in Callowhill, and in 2015 turned a piece of parking lot behind the shelter’s dining hall into a small farm. That farm supplied fresh fruits and vegetables, and also gave the shelter’s clients more structure and work experience.
“My mom used to own and produce five acres of orchids, to import and export,” Ng told The Inquirer in 2017. “I learned from her how to grow orchids. But we also had our own farm to sustain our own life. Everything we needed, we had right there. Not everyone has that opportunity.”
At Union Baptist Church’s Garden of Eden, Ng collaborates with the church to create a farm-to-soup kitchen operation, growing raspberries, blueberries, almonds, and even pawpaws.
The Garden of Eden is where Ng has seen groundhogs. In Secret Lives, a character named Mr. Groundhog loves urban farms as much as she does.
“Spring is in the air! Mr. Groundhog can smell it. ‘It is time to start gardening,’ he said to himself. Mr. Groundhog loves to plant seeds and watch things grow,” Ng wrote in one volume of her series.
And, as in real life, Mr. Groundhog’s gardening ends with a feast for the whole neighborhood.
“Anyone who is in need of a fresh meal, we share,” Ng said. “That’s what I like so much about doing this.”