Ch’ng Kiah Kiean prioritises slow living in order to make soulful art

  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 18 Jun 2019

'We get so caught up with our busy, hectic lives that we forget how and where to look for beauty,' says Ch’ng (with sketchbook), explaining his botanical series in a recent workshop in KL. Photo: OACC

If the story of your life could be told in a series of images, what would it look like?

Penang-based artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiean is not telling the whole tale here, but he offered bits and pieces of his everyday in Close Objects at the Oriental Art and Cultural Centre (OACC) in Kuala Lumpur recently.

In this exhibition, he lingered on familiar sights and sounds – the potted plants, the air limau bungkus, the roast duck for dinner, corn bought from the market, flowers withering by the roadside.

Talk about flashes of memories and glimpses of the present – and just sometimes, they are one and the same.

Long-time followers of his work would be familiar with something usually a bit different from Ch’ng, as he has an academic background in architecture and is often associated with his streetscapes and sketches of buildings.

He joined Urban Sketchers in 2009, and in the same year, published Sketches Of Pulo Pinang.

In 2011, he co-founded non-profit hobby group Urban Sketchers Penang with fellow artist Khoo Cheang Jin.

Ch'ng's Calligraphy Series II (Chinese ink, graphite and watercolour, 2019). Photos: Ch'ng Kiah Kiean

“It is a group that encourages people to meet and share about urban sketching. I love seeing people pick up their pencils and brushes for on-location sketching. To me, urban sketching is a form of recording space and time, but what is most important here is the enjoyment derived from the sketching process itself,” he says.

In an earlier interview, Ch’ng has mentioned that he believes anyone can draw what they see; they just need to tap into the present, and practise.

“I feel that art makes one’s life beautiful, including mine. I travel quite a lot to sketch and to conduct sketching workshops. I am a lucky person because my hobby is my job,” says the 45-year-old.

Prior to urban sketching, Ch’ng ran his own graphic design studio for about a decade. Over the last few years, he has set his sights on distinctively non-architectural aspects of living, and added that into his art practice.

Old Typewriter (Chinese ink and watercolour, 2019).

The recent Close Objects exhibition focused on this, in understated, muted colours – and many in black and white.

“When I first started sketching these non-architectural subjects a few years ago, I was fascinated by the fact that you can always find a beautiful rhythm and system in nature. For example, a sunflower looks complicated at first sight but if you study it closely, you find that it is made up of a nice geometric pattern,” he says.

Ch’ng considers the beauty of nature incomparable to man-made structures, its perfection inimitable in spirit. But he stresses that in deciding on what to sketch, it does not need to be something labelled special or unique.

“I try to seek for the beauty in ordinary, everyday things,” he says.

Exhibition or not, Ch’ng paints it as he sees it.

His recent works, featuring Chinese ink, graphite and watercolour, offer an exercise in simplicity.

My Mum's Old Motorcycle (graphite and watercolour, 2017).

These objects are not necessarily portrayed in their prime, but their stories give their existence meaning.

Me And My Sister’s Old Motorcycle and My Mum’s Old Motorcycle are two works that are particularly meaningful to me. I did those two sketches in my parents’ house on a rainy day. Both my parents are hawkers in the local Penang morning market and my mum still uses that old motorcycle to transport goods to the market to sell. That is the mode of transportation she uses to earn money to raise me and my sister when we were young,” shares Ch’ng.

“Of course, my father has his trishaw, but I have yet to make a sketch of it,” he adds.

The motorcycles might be old, but they continue to be stoic companions in life, come hell or high water.

Roast Duck (graphite and watercolour, 2019).

“Nothing in life is perfect, you see that reflected in nature as well. Outlooks and appearances change with time.

"Every stage is different and has its own beauty. Sometimes I love that very moment where the flowers wither,” he says.

Ch’ng has had 10 solo exhibitions in his hometown, several in Taiwan and one in Italy, in 2016. He has been an instructor at the annual International Urban Sketchers Symposium for several years now, the last of which was held in Porto, Portugal last year.

In Kuala Lumpur, Close Objects was his second show here. It has been seven years since his debut solo at Art Accent Gallery in KL in 2012, with Sketching Memories, which comprised 28 heritage architecture sketches of Penang and Malaysia in long panorama format.

No doubt, Close Objects was a stark departure from this 2012 show, a reflection of part of what Ch’ng has been busy with for some time now. But it is apparent that he is just at home with the little things in life, as he is with panoramic views of heritage buildings and man-made structures.

Withered Sunflower II (Chinese ink and watercolour, 2019).

“Those things that remain in your memories from when you were younger, they can be simple, but so meaningful to you. There remains beauty yet, in those we ignore or forget,” he contemplates when asked about the bigger picture of the kind of everyday he captured in Close Objects.

With the passing of time, you might feel that those cherished memories from the past are slipping away like grains of sand through fingers. But if there is one message that Ch’ng would like to convey through his most recent exhibition, it would be a reminder to stop and smell the roses.

“We get so caught up with our busy, hectic lives that we forget how and where to look for beauty,” he muses.

Slow down, go for a walk in the park, and you will discover beauty again, he says.

“Beauty is everywhere around you ... you just need to observe with all your heart.”

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