Penang State Art Gallery celebrates career of a pioneering artist, educator


Chuah's 'My Art, My Journey' exhibition at the Penang State Art Gallery features over 100 artworks spanning six decades. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

Not many people get to fulfill their childhood dreams, let alone help others achieve theirs.

But after spending a lifetime indulging his love for art and nurturing countless others onto the same path, Datuk Chuah Kooi Yong can proudly say he has accomplished both.

Looking back, the 85-year-old founder and chairman of Equator College in Penang has enjoyed every moment and would not have it any other way.

"I've never regretted choosing this challenging path. Despite its ups and down, art allowed me to appreciate how beautiful life is," said Chuah during the recent opening of his 4th solo exhibition.

Held at the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) in Dewan Sri Pinang, the show My Art, My Journey features over 100 artworks spanning six decades on display.

Chuah's 'Penang Teow Chew Association', an old watercolour piece from 1986. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai Chuah's 'Penang Teow Chew Association', an old watercolour piece from 1986. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

The majority are paintings that document his extensive travels abroad, from Europe to Asia.

Street scenes and landscapes of his beloved Penang also feature prominently, alongside a handful of portraits of prominent local figures and a few early works dating to the 1950s.

"I couldn't put up many of these as most had been damaged by termites. So the exhibited pieces are mostly recent ones done during and after the pandemic.

"The lockdown gave me the pause I needed to fully rediscover the joys of painting," said Chuah.

'View Of The Campanile Bell Tower At Place Rossetti, Nice, France' from 2020. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai 'View Of The Campanile Bell Tower At Place Rossetti, Nice, France' from 2020. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

Oil, watercolour and Chinese ink are his preferred mediums.

In the early days, Chuah often painted in plein-air (outdoors, on-site) which helped him master light, shade and perspective. This allowed him to vividly recreate scenes from his travels using just photographs as references, back in his studio.

He also likes to paint for charity. In 2022, his third solo Art Enrich My Life held at the Penang State Assembly Building helped raise RM50,000 for a local school's building fund.

"Nowadays, I'm not too concerned whether my works are sellable or not. Instead, I cherish the joy of sharing my art," he said.

'Transfer Road, Penang' from 2021. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai 'Transfer Road, Penang' from 2021. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

It is incredible to think that Chuah's life might have panned out differently had his father not purchased an artwork during his primary school years.

"It was a painting of a rooster standing elegantly on a stone. After seeing it, I started drawing and painting on my own. I would paste the finished works on the walls at home.

"Ever since then, I was determined to become an artist someday," recalled Chuah of that pivotal moment back in the 1940s which seeded his lifelong passion.

Despite his parents' initial objectives, he insisted on studying fine arts after high school. He enrolled in Singapore's Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, graduated in 1960 and returned to Malaysia to teach art at Sin Min High School in Kedah.

'Back Lane Of Sicily, Italy', a recent piece done in 2023. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai 'Back Lane Of Sicily, Italy', a recent piece done in 2023. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

Feeling restless after two years, he used the money he earned from the sales of paintings to buy a ticket to England where he pursued a four-year graphic design major at the Hornsey College of Art (now known as Middlesex University), graduating in 1967.

"During my time at Nanyang, one of my teachers asked about my future ambitions. With great eagerness, I replied that I hoped to one day establish an art academy in Penang.

"Fortunately, I was also able to realise this dream," he said about founding what was then known as Equator Academy of Art and Design, back in 1987.

The institution grew from having just a handful of students, to one of the most respected in Malaysia today.

A general view of Chuah's 'My Art, My Journey' exhibition at the Penang State Art Gallery in Dewan Sri Pinang. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai A general view of Chuah's 'My Art, My Journey' exhibition at the Penang State Art Gallery in Dewan Sri Pinang. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

He has shown no signs of letting up and continues to be involved with daily operations.

"Throughout this journey, we've nurtured thousands of young creatives, many of whom have gone on to achieve remarkable success in various industries," said Chuah.

Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, who officiated the launch, described Chuah's journey as an inspiration for younger generations.

"As we traverse this visual narrative, we're reminded of the power of dedication and the transformative nature of creativity. Chuah's contributions extend beyond the canvas and his efforts in growing Equator into a beacon of artistic excellence is truly commendable," Chow mentioned in his speech.

The My Art, My Journey exhibition continues at the Penang State Art Gallery until Aug 30 and is open for viewing daily between 9am and 5pm (except Fridays and public holidays). Admission is free.

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