Artist Chng Seok Tin in her studio
Continuing my occasional series of interviews with creative practitioners…. I’m delighted to introduce artist/sculptor/print-maker/writer and lyricist Chng Seok Tin. A multi-award winning artist who has trained, exhibited and worked all over the world, it was a great pleasure to visit her in her studio in Singapore recently. Seok Tin has been accorded the highest state art award, Singapore’s Cultural Medallion, the 2014 Singapore Women Hall of Fame Award and numerous other accolades for her work across many mediums. Her answers to my 20 Questions follow, with a full biography and links at the end of the post.
What first drew you to becoming an artist?
Fate. I had never thought of becoming an artist. I first went to England to escape the routine life of a secondary school teacher; a temporary measure I had thought. But I managed to stay abroad for 10 years, fascinated with artmaking as it led me from one art school to another in three different countries: UK, France, USA.
What was your big breakthrough?
The support given by a stranger when I was still sighted and an aspiring overseas art student. A contemporary of mine, Tang Da Wu, whose artwork is collected by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tang_Da_Wu), a student and a stranger then at Birmingham Polytechnic who guided me to apply to St Martins after he spotted my portfolio when I was rejected by Birmingham Polytechnic.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
My most challenging time of my artmaking will be in 1989, when I started afresh after I lost my sight, and went back to teaching and make prints at LASALLE College of Arts with the help of a printmaking major student as my assistant, arranged by the most enlightened President-Founder/sculptor, Brother McNally. If you ask generally – coming up with ideas for art works can be most challenging, or very easy.
Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?
My first visit to the museum/gallery in London where I encounter these greats: Turner, Constable, Rembrandt, Reuben, Velaquez, Goya, Rodin, Picasso, and more.
What’s more important: form or content?
Content. You can have skilful technical form but it is the unique content which makes great art and speaks up.
How do you know when a project is finished?
When you feel it is finished.
Do you read your reviews?
Before, when I could see, I read reviews and did battles with the reviewers. Now, if no one reads to me, then no.
What advice would you give a young writer/ art practitioner?
You have to know that financial rewards may be sparse, but if you have a passion and want to devote yourself to art, then follow your heart. To me, art and writing (I am also a Chinese language writer of 13 books) is worthy of my lifelong devotion.
What work of art would you most like to own?
Ha ha. Starry Starry Night – mysterious and profound, by Van Gogh. I don’t want to own the artwork because I won’t be able to take care of it, that would be unfair to the precious work.
What’s the biggest myth about making art?
That making art can make big money. It is the marketplace that makes big money for collectors and dealers. The average buyer gets the wrong impression about these crazy prices which I don’t understand either. Intrinsic value of artworks created with technical and asethetic prowess expressing our humanity, our oneness, our love for nature and society are priceless and yet…
What are you working on now?
Now on Number 64 of Crazy Horse art installation. This installation hopefully will be auctioned off to benefit a group of forgotten minority. It was inspired by my visit to the struggling Crazy Horse Memorial in USA which immortalises Native Indian Chief Crazy Horse. He died fighting the colonists in the time of General Custer. (https://crazyhorsememorial.org/indian-museum-of-north-america.html)
What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?
There’s so many. Well, Rodin’s sculptures for art, classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin for writing.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
Nothing, a blank slate at the start is best. I like what I do, do as I like, nothing planned ahead, just keep going.
What’s your greatest ambition?
A chance to exhibit at a prestigious museum or have my artwork in there while I am still alive. That will be most affirming.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?
Sigh. It is common to everyone. Just stop for a while and listen to some inspirational talk or book.
What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?
That they don’t know what I am doing, that it was a waste of my time spent learning art abroad. It was at my first shows upon my return from overseas. This was at a time when Singapore art was focused on socialistic and realistic works, and mine was comparatively conceptual and abstract to a lot of people, so there was hostile reception.
And the best thing?
After 1989, when I lost my eyesight, when my works became more comprehensible as they were more on social comments and story telling.
If you were to create a concept or metaphor about the artmaking process, what would it be?
A mage chef to conjure a most delectible dish for all to enjoy, with everything in place: inspiration, perspiration and quality ingredients.
What is your philosophy or life motto?
Try your best, and then follow your fate – a Chinese epigram.
What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?
Not learn but taste its spices: sour, sweet, bitter, spicy. That’s life.
What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?
Pretty much all there. Thank you for your questions and your interest, it means a lot to me.
Links and full biography of Chng Seok Tin:
Wikipedia : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chng_Seok_Tin
National Library Singapore Resources: Singapore Infopedia http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1385_2008-10-29.html
Biography: School Teacher turned art student. Art Education 1971-1985: National Academy of Fine Arts. 10 years overseas: UK – St Martins School of Art， Hull College of Higher Education. Hornsey College of Art. France – Atelier 17, Paris. USA –MA from New Mexico State University and MFA from University of Iowa, majoring in printmaking. 1986-1997 Printmaking/Art lecturer to a generation of art students at major art schools: LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, NAFA, National Institute of Education. 1988 Lost her eyesight after near-death surgeries to remove brain abscess. Continuing to make prints, she has since included sculptures and mixed media works. Her artworks are commentaries on nature and the human condition. Held 31 solo exhibitions, participated in more than 100 group exhibitions in Singapore and overseas including Asia, Australia, China, USA and Europe and UK. In 2005, Seok Tin was accorded the highest state art award: Singapore’s Cultural Medallion, and also became the first Singapore artist to exhibit at the United Nations HQ, New York. Other accolades include: 2001 Woman of the Year award, and the 2014 Singapore Women Hall of Fame award in its inaugural year. Also a Chinese writer and poet, Seok Tin wrote for Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong dailies and magazines. She authored 13 collections of prose, travel writings, satires and art reviews. She was honoured with a Chinese Literature Society award in 2007. She is also a lyricist, who penned the Chinese classic hit made popular by singer Kit Chan, Step out of the Darkness My friend. Seok Tin also designs and organises inclusive art workshops. She makes sound art and touch art that are exhibited in the dark to encourage public awareness of the visually disabiled amongst us. A lifelong learner, she has just taught herself to play the harmonica. Chng Seok Tin’s works are part of the national collection of Singapore at National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum. Her artworks can be seen at the National Gallery Singapore DBS Gallery 2.