Words: Melissa Kong
Photos: Albert Tan
While some guys take pleasure in retreating to their man caves where they can watch TV, drink beer and belch freely, Chiew Sien Kuan’s sanctuary is his studio, which he started just this year. The cosy space is home to eclectic mixed media sculptures and paintings, and is where he translates his thoughts and ideas into captivating pieces of art.
A graduate of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) himself, Chiew is now a diploma programme leader and senior lecturer at the school. He holds the Highly Recommended Prize in the Australian Bicentennial Art Award of Young Artists, awarded to him in 1992. He also won the first prize in the 3D category at the Phillippe Charriol Foundation Contemporary Art Competition in 1993. The 50-year-old is also actively involved in group exhibitions both locally and overseas.
What sparked your interest in art?
Rather than a spark, I like to use the word, “calling”. When you’re young, you don’t really like to study and when the teacher is talking, you’re actually doodling on the textbook. You’ll find it’s quite a common phenomenon among many artists when they were young. So naturally after graduating from high school, you would think about looking for something in the arts and so I went to NAFA.
Describe the art you do.
Even though I studied painting in NAFA, my journey in art started with some carpentry work like wood sculptures and paintings. My father was a carpenter so I think I’m a natural sculptor and that’s where my potential really is. I use a lot of assemblage and mix materials together that are not usually related. Sometimes I don’t even use conventional materials. I may use cement and then go over with enamel or emulsion paint. And I may not have any idea what the end result will be. I enjoy that kind of process where things are happening and you try and resolve problems along the way.
What inspires you?
City life in Singapore, world events, conflicts, wars, machines. I created some paintings after 9/11 featuring the twin towers, dried sunflowers, a collage of warplanes.
Which other artist has influenced your work?
I’m very much influenced by a German artist, Anselm Kiefer. I can relate to his paintings and landscapes. He’s not just a painter, he also makes lots of 3D sculptures but they’re huge. His studio is so huge that he has to ride a bicycle to view his own work. I could never do that though; rent in Singapore is too expensive!
As a practising artist, what are some of your biggest challenges?
The challenge is always time. As I teach in NAFA, I always have to find time after work or during the holidays to work on my art. Also, another challenge is what to express—what to paint. Of course, there’s the high studio rental fee as well.
What do you focus on when you plan your curriculum?
I’d like to make every individual student a different artist. In NAFA we marry two systems – liberal and masterclass. For the latter, we have lecturers from China who are very skilled and well-trained in a particular area. They provide a very systematic, scientific approach, which is good because you learn how to make things properly. But if you don’t follow the formula strictly and use your own expression, then you might not be considered a good artist based on this system.
To me, there’s a bit of problem in that kind of judgement. This system works if you assume that the students who come in are all the same. But they’re not. You’ll train very skilled artists but lack the liberty of having individualism. So in NAFA, we incorporate the scientific stage in the first two years but in the final year, it will be more liberal.
What’s the greatest misconception that students have about a career in the arts?
Many people think a career in the arts is just about a particular skill set but there’s art history and philosophy as well. In the western world, they all talk about art as a part of the humanities.
When the students come in, they are quite simple and just want to learn basic skills of drawing and painting, so their mindset is quite simple and narrow. But what do you want to say about your work? What do you want to express? So after two, three years, we always have to challenge them, struggle with them and debate with them about what art is. They have that misconception that they just want to learn how to draw, that’s all. But it’s more than that. If you talk about liberal arts, it involves history, philosophy, psychology.
How does your practice complement your classes?
I try to write some of my works into the curriculum and help the students experience it but of course I have to apply the theory into my work first before I can put it into the curriculum.
Chiew Sien Kuan will be exhibiting his work at the Artist Alliance booth at the upcoming Art Stage Singapore from January 21 – 24 at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre. Interested buyers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.