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