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Art Through Adversity

By Kames Narayanan

Visual artist Vincent Tan Wee Tar sits amongst his wire sculptures, that fill the studio space.
Tung Pham/ Felicia Yap
Visual artist Vincent Tan Wee Tar sits amongst his wire sculptures, that fill the studio space.

Victor Tan

An artist’s studio has long been understood as a tangible extension of the creative themselves. More than mere physical space, it is an open window to an artist’s soul, a reflection of an ethos that delves deeper than the surface value of the artworks themselves. When I visited local artist Victor Tan’s studio, tucked away in an old, repurposed school compound that stood amidst a cluster of private houses, a certain sense of humanity resonated from the space.

When I arrived at his studio, Tan was seated on his arm chair, midway through a sculpture that stood on the floor — an entanglement of wire that was shaping up to take the form of a child. Lined with windows along its sides, the afternoon sun streamed into the studio, further illuminating the space’s jolly yellow walls. The studio was littered with the fruits of Tan’s labour: large wire sculpture hung suspended from the ceiling, smaller pieces displayed on shelves and others, stored away in plastic storage containers.

I watched intently in wonder as he navigated the wire predominately by touch, choreographing each kink instinctively, presumably, as per the mental image he had constructed. To the outsider looking, the intricacies of each sculpture, present an indecipherable maze but to Tan, even with limited vision, every bend is a well-learnt part of a vivid mental image.

Tung Pham/ Felicia YapCreating wire sculptures mainly through touch.
Creating wire sculptures mainly through touch.

At the age of 23 years old, Tan lost part of his sight to optic neuritis, a medical condition that causes the inflammation of the optic nerve. While the diagnosis typically results in the temporary loss of vision, Tan’s eyesight only diminished with the years. In the prime of his youth, Tan’s life was thrown off-kilter. Forced to dropout of the architectural technology course that he was enrolled in at the time, Tan’s dreams and ambitions took a detour.

“Not being able to draw the fine lines meant I could no longer draw and I could no longer become an architect,” says Tan.

What could easily have been a landmark setback in an artist’s pursuit, instead, led Tan to down a path of discovering his innate passion for the arts. “At the time I was very young, did not want to give up. I knew I had to try everything that I possibly could. It was through that exploration that I came to realise all the things that I could do,” says Tan. “When I look back, it takes me by surprise that I did not give up.”

In the face of the adversity, Tan actively sought out new windows of opportunity for growth.

Tung Pham/ Felicia YapA sculpture of an adolescent is currently a work-in- progress.
A sculpture of an adolescent is currently a work-in- progress.

“After I was diagnosed, I went to the Blind Association and it was there that I met other blind artists. During that time, they were conducting workshops and I participated in a few of them. Through that, one of the artists suggested that I should study in an art college,” recalls Tan.

Being immersed in an unrestrained space where Tan could purely sink into the process of creation developed into an enlightening journey of self discovery. “I then realised that all along, throughout the years of my childhood, I desired to do art. But I never really delved into it,” said Tan.

Driven by a newfound impetus to actualise his childhood dreams of being an artist, Tan enrolled at the LaSalle College of the Arts, to pursue a diploma in ceramics and subsequently, a Bachelor of Arts degree in sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Ironically, the loss of his vision opened his sight to the boundless possibilities of what could be.

“All my life I had never worked with three-dimensional objects. I had always admired things that were two-dimensional like drawings and paintings. I had never set my eye on the possibilities of anything three-dimensional,” muses Tan.

It was also during his time in college when he discovered the medium of wire amidst experimentation on the various mediums through which he could actualise the sketches in his mind. “With partial vision, I have to rely a lot on my touch, to make out what it is that I’m creating,” says Tan.

The revelation played a centripetal role in setting the course of Tan’s career as an artist. Upon graduation, he fast catapulted to fame for his repertoire of wire sculptures. Not only have his commissioned works found homes in corporate and private art collections in Singapore, his sculptures have crossed the border to countries like the United States, The Netherlands, Japan, Hong Kong and Mexico. Along with international recognition followed a multitude of opportunities for Tan to showcase his works at solo exhibitions. On what seems like a seemingly endless resume of accolades, Tan also deserves the laurels for having his works on public display at some of the city’s most prominent landmarks.

Tung Pham/ Felicia YapTan mostly creates sculptures of the human form, and when he does deviate, he looks to nature for inspiration.
Tan mostly creates sculptures of the human form, and when he does deviate, he looks to nature for inspiration.

Beyond the sheer technical prowess that puts him in the upper echelons amongst artists here, the sheer humility that resonates through his works put him on a calibre of his own. Primarily creating structures of human figures, Tan investigates relatable human emotions that meander and deviate through the passage of time.

“To me, the body allows me to express the inner feelings and thoughts of my inner being. It can be looked at as the landscape of the thoughts. I can create a sculpture that could be yelling and screaming out, a yearning that cannot be expressed in the real world but it can through art,” explains Tan.

In fact, his series of sculptures currently in progress, traces back to the untainted innocence and unconditional love of one’s childhood. “I am thinking of creating an exhibition next where people can visit and carry a sculptural baby. As art’s relationship with people has always been distant, I intend to allow each person to interact and experience art for themselves,” he reveals.

For an artist whose works are defined by noble intentions of taking his audience on a introspective journey, Tan has one wish for himself. “I wish I could see again. It is only now that I realise how beautiful the world truly is,” he says as a weary smile spread across his face.

Chng Seok Tin

Tung Pham/ Felicia YapMulti- disciplinary artist Chng Seok Tin poses outside her studio with a mixed media sculpture from a previous installation.
Multi- disciplinary artist Chng Seok Tin poses outside her studio with a mixed media sculpture from a previous installation.

The torrential downpour had tapered off into a light drizzle as I arrived at multi-disciplinary artist Chng Seok Tin’s modest studio tucked away at the back end of a repurposed school compound — my second studio visit there in two consecutive days. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by Kim Ong, a member of the Womens Artists Association, who doubled up as Chng’s mouthpiece and visual guide.

Despite being located within the same compound; Chng’s studio was far more extensive than the one I had previously visited. Its layout, reminiscent of an actual apartment, was dissected into two separate rooms, a central area that can be likened to a living room, a kitchen, a toilet and a backyard. But even in the relatively vast space, nearly every nook and cranny was occupied by Chng’s vast repertoire of work ranging from sculptures to paintings on canvases.

“What you see stored here is not even all of her artwork, sometimes we have to discard some of the larger sculptures as there is simply not enough space to store them all. An artist’s work is at times ephemeral,” shares Ong, her voice tinged with a sense of defeat.

What remains in storage, in fact, barely scrapes the surface of the fruitions of Chng’s artistic endeavors accumulated in the five decades of her career. Tin’s initial brush with the arts recalls back to her teenage years. At the age of 19, she marked her initial foray into the arts by sketching and taking watercolour and sculpture lessons from her first art teacher. In the years that followed, Tin’s craft matured and evolved with age, just as she did.

Tung Pham/ Felicia Yap The canvas is a boundless medium through which she expresses herself.
The canvas is a boundless medium through which she expresses herself.

In her quest to satiate her inexhaustible thirst for the arts, Chng pursued a diploma in western painting at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and subsequently, ventured into printmaking for her bachelor of arts at the Hull College of Higher Education in England. A holder of double masters, Tin earned her first masters in arts from New Mexico State University and later added a masters of fine arts from the University of Iowa. The years that Chng spent in the United States was a time for exponential growth. It was during these years of education that Tin undertook the historic, niche craft of printmaking. Under the apprenticeship of famous printmakers from halfway across the globe, her craft thrived.

When it was time to return home after the years she had spent abroad, Chng was presented with the offer to teach printmaking at LaSalle College of the Arts, then newly opened. As she was on a steady climb to the pinnacle of success as an artist, fate had other plans for her. Chng’s life came crashing down on her as a brain tumour destroyed most of her optic nerves, eventually leading to a significant loss in sight.

The visual impairment forced Chng to hit the reset button on her life and she had to learn how to live again. “Beethoven finished his great symphonies after becoming deaf. I too should be able to continue teaching and practicing art,” wrote Chng in retrospect.

Tung Pham/ Felicia Yap

Unhindered by her impaired vision, she pressed on to make her mark in the artistic realm. In 2005, she made history as the first Singaporean to hold a solo exhibition at the Headquarters of the United Nations. In the same year, she was also awarded the prestigious Cultural Medallion, an award conferred in recognition of an individual’s artistic excellence and their contribution and commitment to the arts. In 2014, she was also inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame and most recently recognised by the Singapore Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth as a pioneer of modern printmaking practice in Singapore.

For an artist who has ticked the boxes of what most would consider as the epitome of success, Chng bears the weight of financial difficulties, that at different points throughout the interview spiralled into an abyss of hopelessness.

“Despite how famous I am and how many interviews I am featured in, not a lot of people buy my work. Sometimes, my friends joke that although I am famous, I do not have money,” shares Chng. “Of course, I would like to live an easier life, to not be in my 70s and still worrying about not having enough money. Being unable to pay my assistants enough, sometimes I feel that I might be taking these people for granted. And I ask, what am I doing this for?”

As the years catch up with Chng, keeping up with the craft proves to be an uphill task. “It is quite tiring, I am 72 and I don’t have a lot of energy. Doing all these artworks requires a lot of not just mental but also physical strength. Of course, I can continue doing the smaller projects but that isn’t as exciting to me,” shared Chng. “I am still thinking, that after more than 50 years of practice in the visual arts, if this is enough for me.”

While the path ahead seems rife with uncertainty, Chng holds out hope for a sustainable future for the next generation of artists. “I think in Singapore, there is a lack in support for local artists. It is pitiful that they spend a lot of money to participate in exhibitions but do not end up selling their works. The artists here still do not have a cultural centre where they can exhibit their works freely. There needs to be greater thought put into this, as art can potentially play a large role in the country’s economy,” laments Chng.

Vince Low

Tung Pham/ Felicia YapFrom left: Low is in the midst of completing a portrait; a self- portrait of Low.
From left: Low is in the midst of completing a portrait; a self- portrait of Low.

When viewed from a distance, Malaysian artist Vince Low’s portraits don’t deviate from the archetypal pencil sketch. But upon closer inspection, an inconceivable intersection of infinite lines that take shape into recognisable faces become apparent. What Low has coined as scribble portraits, are however, is none like the imagery of adolescent restlessness that most people have been acquainted with growing up.

Low discovered his knack for
the arts at the young age of five.
“When I was around the age of
five, my father once drew me a
monster. It was the first time it
occurred to me that such amazing
 art can be created from mere pen
and paper. But I lost it within a
day and kept bugging my father to
draw me another piece. Out of
 annoyance, he tore the paper and
gave it back to me. It was in this
moment of disappointment that I realised, I could draw myself a piece of art,” fondly recalls Low.

Tung Pham/ Felicia YapClose-up of a portrait that is steadily taking shape.
Close-up of a portrait that is steadily taking shape.

Art remained Low’s strong pursuit in school. For much of his years growing up, Low and his family members were baffled by his inability to complete his homework. Dismissed as sheer laziness on his part, Low’s difficulties in school progressively worsened, with no amount of hardwork sufficient to salvage his failing grades. At one point, Low even fell under the dangerous influence of gangs. It was then that his parents considered the alternative path of enrolling him into the arts.

It was then that Low realised his fullest potential, as drawing, illustration and everything that was related to the arts came second nature to Low. Upon graduation, he eventually rose up in the ranks as the Head of Illustration and Head of Studio at Grey Group Kuala Lumpur, a creative advertising agency. All throughout these years, going about life without recognising that his day to day functionalities were impaired by dyslexia — a discovery that he only made about six years ago.

Vince LowFrom left: A portrait of Jim Carey; one of Robert Plant.
From left: A portrait of Jim Carey; one of Robert Plant.

“One of the projects that I had to work on at the advertising agency was a project on dyslexia awareness. In fact, I was initially baffled as I had never heard of dyslexia before. How could some not be able to read or write?” said Low. “He then proceeded to show a video of how a dyslexic person sees words: the words move, alphabet blink to white, words go blur and alphabets flip. I was completely taken aback and asked everyone else in the room if they had the same problem.”

It was only then that Low found the answers to the learning abilities that he had experienced in the earlier days of his life. “It was like someone suddenly telling me I was a duck, when all this while, I thought I was a swan. I had to get reacquainted with myself. But everything then started to make sense..my failures in school, the anxieties that I faced and my low self esteem,” reveals Low.

Being dyslexic, Low is congenitally bad at communication through words. What he does instead is channel his sensitivities to emotion into his scribble art. Now guided with a better understanding of dyslexia, Low has his hand in an array of activities that lend support to those at a loss of how to deal with their diagnosis.

“Through my art, I hope they can see that I have become someone I never dared to dream of and they can do the same. It makes me want to do more everytime I meet others who also suffer from dyslexia,” said Low.