Her Life and Art

Thoughts on the Learning and Practising of Art

I started sketching, watercolour and sculpture lessons from my first art teacher Yeo Hwee Bin when I was 19 years old. Since then, 44 years have gone by. How time flies! The past is indeed “a fleeting illusion, vanishing like vapour and lightning”. The famous Confucian scholar Nan Huaiching once expounded, “One should spend his life reading 10,000 books, travelling 10,000 miles and making 10,000 friends”. Looking back, things panned out in my life not by deliberate planning and action on my part, given the muddleheaded person that I am. It was thanks to the help of many benefactors and friends that I could manage to arrive at where I am today.

To a certain degree, I am realising the three objectives stated in Master Nan’s axiom. The more I think about it, the more thankful I become! Isn’t a passion for art the pursuit of a haven for the mind and soul and the cultivation of a noble, magnanimous attitude toward life? He who wears the hat of an artist but is preoccupied with entertaining powerful officials and pursuing fame and fortune is but an empty shell of what he professes! I have always felt that achieving technical perfection may be important, but good character and a cultured bearing are even more important. No matter how well an artist can paint, if his character is flawed, his art will never evoke a wholesome and refreshing appeal! It was believed that Cai Jing and Qin Hui, notorious historical figures from the Song dynasty, were excellent calligraphers, but who would display their works in the living room or hall?

The world today is a chaotic one, where traditional morals and social order have collapsed, and people are obsessed with materialistic pursuits and gratification of the flesh. Both natural and manmade disasters, violence and bloodshed are on the rise. Greed, hatred and folly have infected humanity to an unbelievable point! A modern intellectual warned, “If humanity ceases to resemble itself, then the end of the world is here!”

The only way to stem the tide is to purify the human mind, which can be achieved only through religion, art and philosophy. However, religion in its extremist form is an even greater evil; the same goes for art. If the innate nature of an artist is warped, obsessive and absurd, he would be deviating further away from the “truth, goodness and beauty” of art.

A genuine artwork conveys an original idea; how good the artwork is very much depends on the moral character of the artist. What is heartbreaking is that the world is such a chaotic place and everything is perverted and twisted, so much so that art has become commercialised, and “objects of beauty” have become “objects of ugliness”. Prices of many mindboggling, shallow and even hideous works have skyrocketed to astronomical proportions, unbelievable as it may sound.

I have never wanted to become an “artist”. Even today, I would rather see myself as a qualified art practitioner. Things would have remained the same for the past forty years and more if not for fate, which granted me the opportunity to travel overseas after a ten-year stint as a secondary school teacher. For the next decade I travelled all over England, France and America. During that time, I developed a lifelong passion for the visual arts. The countless artworks by great masters in numerous world class art galleries and museums in the West I visited are simply breathtaking and amazing! I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to see these masterpieces by world renowned artists before my eyesight deteriorated. From Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya to William Shatner, Constable, Manet, Cezanne, Rodin and Gauguin….. the list goes on! The world of art is simply enigmatic and astounding!

Given my limited talent, I will never achieve even a fraction of what these great masters have done, no matter how much effort I may put in. I may be well trained in the fundamentals of art, but I lack patience and focus. All sorts of different techniques and media attract me, and I want to try all of them! Fortunately, the concepts behind modern art opened another door for me. My training in Europe and America enabled me to create my own path, discover my potential and harness my strengths. The great German modern artist Joseph Beuys once proclaimed, “Everyone is anartist!” and so I began exploring and studying modern and avant-garde art.

The four years I spent in America saw great breakthroughs in my art-making endeavours. I put up several large scale installation art exhibitions during that period. Despite all this, my forte remains in printmaking. Being particularly passionate about printmaking, I took it up as a major subject ever since my second year at Britain’s Hull College. I love the myriad techniques employed in the art form, the unique effects achievable and the potential for experimentation.

Apart from me, there was only one Australian student who enrolled in the course that year. Professor Walter Chamberlain showered us with extra attention. The metal plates, paper and colours were supplied free of charge, and we were given utmost freedom in our creative efforts. Later, I had the opportunity to travel abroad twice to train under famous printmakers Stanley William Hayter (founder of the Atelier 17 in Paris), Professor Spencer Fidler (New Mexico State University) and Professor Mauricio Lasansky (University of Iowa). They had a deep influence on me, especially Professor Mauricio Lasansky. When he first saw my work, he praised me for my vivid imagination and creativity, but commented that I tend to indulge in too many things. Following his advice to focus on learning from nature, the Iowa River became the subject of my study. I spent two years portraying the rhythm and nuances of the beautiful river water, expressing how it nourishes and impacts my soul and mind using the techniques in sketching, etching, lithography and monotype.

In 1986, I returned home after completing my studies and was appointed lecturer in printmaking at the newly opened LASALLE College of the Arts. Just when my career was about to reach its peak, the most unexpected tragedy hit me, pushing me into life’s abyss. I almost lost the courage to live. A brain tumour had destroyed most of my optic nerves. The doctor saved my life but could not save my vision! From then on I could only see the world through blurry eyes! Help poured in from all quarters, for which I am very grateful. It enabled me to go through this most difficult time, and spur me to start life afresh.

Beethoven finished his greatest symphonies after becoming deaf. I too should be able to continue teaching and practicing art, despite damage to my vision. Twenty years have since past. Not that I want to brag, but what I have achieved does not pale in comparison to other artists with normal vision. I seize and create every opportunity to travel all over the world, holding exhibitions, meeting people, learning and making friends. In one of his poems, He Qifang wrote, “Life is a domain as vast as the ocean. Where there is life, there is happiness and treasures.” And life is the wellspring of art-making, with nature being the best teacher. Clear vision is not necessary, as long as one uses his heart to experience and feel, to live and to create art.

I have walked through the valley of death, climbed the cliff of pain and suffering, and cried throughout many long nights. Every new day is a bonus, which I doubly treasure. While my legs are still strong, I will continue to explore this boundless universe and the great big world with these fuzzy eyes of mine. And then with my two brushes – one for painting and the other for writing – I will share with everyone my innermost thoughts and feelings.


Chng Seok Tin
Written in the early morning of 19th
August 2009 at Xieyang Ge1.


1 This is a direct translation of the location where this essay was written. It refers to the artist’s studio at Haig Road which suggests, from its lyrical name, a room with a view of the setting



屈指算来,打从我十九岁时师从启蒙恩师杨惠民学习素描、水彩、雕塑开始到现在,已足足四十四载了。时间过得好快!往昔一切的确“如梦幻泡影,如露亦如电”… …。 南怀瑾大师曾说:“人的一生应该读万卷书,行万里路,交万个朋友”。回想我这大半辈子,糊里糊涂,误打误撞;拜四方神明之赐,托八方贵人之助,我方能一步一脚印走到今天,且多少应证南老师所说的那三点。细细想起来,除了感恩还是感恩!

对艺术的执着不就是追求心灵的安顿与豁达大度的生活态度吗?假如顶了一个艺术家的桂冠,还成天飞去飞来宰相衙,汲汲于名与利,那充其量只是个半吊子的空头艺术家!我总是认为一个艺术家的技术固然重要 — 总得力求尽善尽美,但他的人品与修养更重要。一个人品低劣的画家画得再漂亮,也不会予人一种健康清新的美感!宋朝的大奸臣蔡京与秦侩据说字都写得很棒,但有谁愿意把他们的字挂在大厅墙上?

当今的时代,可说是个礼崩乐坏,道德伦丧,物欲横流的乱世。天灾人祸,日益频密;血腥暴力,日益加剧。人性的贪婪、嗔恨、愚痴似乎已到了无以复加的地步! 一位现代智者如此警告:“当人已再不象人时世界末日就到了!!要力挽狂澜,唯有净化人心;要净化人心靠的也只能是宗教、艺术与哲学。然而,宗教走入极端是更可怕的一回事;艺术也一样,当搞艺术的人本性被扭曲,当他走火入魔时,他离开艺术的“真善美”也就越来越远了!


我自始至终都没有想要当一名“艺术家”,就是现在,我也不敢以“家”自居,我只是一名称职的艺术工作者。四十几年来如一日,是命运让我在当了十年中学教师后飞出国门,在英国、法国和美国浪迹了整十年,与视觉艺术结下不解之缘。伦敦、巴黎、威尼斯、翡冷翠、慕尼黑、梵蒂冈、纽约、华盛顿……无数世界级的美术馆及画廊里,为数惊人的名家作品让我目炫神驰,惊心动魄!我很庆幸在我视力发生故障之前,亲眼目睹艺术史上扬名古今中外的大师巨匠的精心杰作。波提切利、达芬奇、米开朗基罗、拉斐尔、鲁本斯、伦勃朗、戈雅、威廉•特納、康斯特勃、馬奈、塞尚、罗丹、高更 ……太多太多了!啊! 艺术的天地是多么深沉,多么奇妙,多么的浩瀚!


我对版画艺术情有独钟,打从在英国赫尔高等教育学院的第二年,我就主修版画,喜欢它技法的多样化,喜欢它特殊效果,它的实验性。那年,版画系只有我与另外一位澳洲同学选修,教授华特·詹伯伦对我们厚爱有加,金属版、纸张、颜色全部免费供应,给予我们最自由的创作空间。之后,我二度返国出国,先后师从名师版画大师威廉·海特(巴黎十七号版画室)、史宾斯·费勒教授(新墨西哥州立大学)及 拉桑斯基教授(爱荷华大学),他们给我的影响都很大,特别是拉桑斯基教授。他第一次看到我堆成小山的习作,赞许我有丰富的想象力与创造力,只是太爱搞花样。他要我专心向大自然学习,于是爱荷华河水成了我专注的对象。那两年我通过素描、铜版画、石版画及单刷版画的技法表达那美丽的水的律动、变化以及它给予我新灵的滋润与冲击。


我很感激从四方八面伸过来的援手,助我渡过最艰苦的时期, 重新面对人生。贝多芬在耳聋后继续完成伟大的乐章,我在视力受损后,也应该可以继续教学与创作。二十年过去了,不是我自吹,我交出来的成绩单一点不输给大多数视力健全的艺术家。我抓住任何机会,也为自己制造不少机会,到世界各地去旅游,去举行画展,去交流,去学习,我交的朋友遍布五洲四海,“生活是多么广阔,生活是海洋,凡有生活的地方就有快乐和宝藏”(何其芳诗)。而生活就是艺术创作的泉源,大自然就是我们最好的导师。不一定要看得清楚,只要用心去体会,用心去生活,用心去创作。

我走过了死亡的幽谷,我攀越过苦难的高岗,働哭过长夜,如今的每天对我都是“花红”,我会加倍珍惜,趁我脚力还可以的时候,用我这双朦胧眼去探视大千世界,去阅读广袤大地,然后用我的两支笔 — 画画的笔与写作的笔把内心的体悟和感动表现出来,与大家分享。



Mixed Media On Canvas