Wed, Jan 06, 2010
The Straits Times
Who am I? I'm a survivor

By akshita nanda

A white cane leans against the door of the studio in Telok Kurau but for the first-time visitor surrounded by delicate dancing human figures sculpted in bronze, foil or wire or etched in paint, there is little indication that artist Chng Seok Tin has a visual handicap.

Only the cane and her failure to register a proffered hand signal the fact that this Cultural Medallion recipient has been blind for 21 years.

But the lack of sight has not held back this woman whose career spans 30 years.

Her sculptures, prints and mixed- media works have been displayed in 26 solo exhibitions and over 100 group shows. She has taught at the Lasalle College of the Arts and held residencies in universities in the United States and China.

Express amazement at her feats after the brain abscess and surgery that robbed her of her vision in 1988 and she laughs, saying that there is much she still has to achieve.

Financial security, for one thing, she reveals dryly, explaining that she just manages to make do by selling her art and the occasional teaching gig.

'But something always turns up,' she adds with her trademark good cheer.

Single, she lives with her mother, now 90, in a scrupulously clean four-room HDB flat in Haig Road. Her father died in 2001. Family ties are tightly knit. Her two brothers and remaining three sisters - the eldest died some years ago - contribute to the care of their parent. One of Chng's nieces maintains the artist's website and her sisters stop by daily to cook, clean or spend time with their mother while the artist heads to her studio - by bus.

'I can go anywhere by myself on the bus and MRT,' she boasts proudly. 'Only sometimes, if it is raining or a very unfamiliar location, I take cabs.'

Self-reliance and resilience were bred into her. Her father, a well-to-do ship- owner, went bankrupt during World War II and in the 1950s, the family moved from their residence in Katong to a leaky attap house in Kampung Chai Chee.

Chng, 62, grew up there making her own dolls and helping her mother make bags out of newspaper which they sold to provision stores for extra cash.

She describes her childhood with nostalgia, recalling the taste of fatty pork that was a treat during Chinese New Year.

'When you are poor, you appreciate everything,' she says, laughing.

Her parents insisted their five daughters and two sons go to school. Her father worked in the clothes-selling trade and her mother scrimped and saved for uniforms and books that were passed down from child to child. Like her siblings, Chng is a graduate of Chung Cheng High.

After high school, she took her certificate in education at the then Teacher's Training College and began teaching Chinese at Tanjong Katong Girls' School in 1966. It was then that she could finally indulge her love of art by taking private lessons from the school art teacher and also doing a diploma in Western painting at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

'At that time, I did not think I would be an artist. Art was just a hobby.'

Now it is clearly her life's passion. She works in her studio from 9am to 5pm, sometimes with a student, usually turning the radio on to classical music channels for inspiration. Towards evening, she packs up her materials and takes them home to work on.

She enjoys social interaction and the company of male friends, though she no longer dates. She delights in meeting new people, offering every visitor to her studio a cup of tea or coffee, apologising because it is instant and carefully laying out biscuits on a plate.

Any chance remark can lead her into a memory of long-time friends and past students. She speaks of them with affection, easily recalling their telephone numbers. She cannot make out letters and numbers on her cellphone, so she makes sure to memorise even a new acquaintance's contact details.

Certain people are clearly top on her list, such as her second-eldest sister, who helped pay for her degree, and the late Brother Joseph McNally, the founder of Lasalle, who gave her her first job in Singapore and who also saved her artistic career after she went blind in 1988. Her voice turns low and respectful when speaking of him.

Before that fateful year, it seemed as if the sky would be the limit for Chng. Funded by her own savings, a Lee Foundation Study Award and contributions from her sister, she earned her bachelor's in art from the Hull College of Higher Education in 1979.

That same year, the National Museum Art Gallery of Singapore held an exhibition of her prints and an award from the Ministry of Culture allowed her to study advanced printmaking at England's Hornsey College of Art the next year.

'I was lucky,' she says modestly.

The Hornsey studio caught fire within months of her arrival and she was offered the chance to study engraving at Atelier 17 in Paris instead.

She followed this up with a master's in arts at the New Mexico State University in 1983 and another in fine arts in 1985 at the University of Iowa. Paying her way with teaching and art research, she was beginning to make a name for herself.

Fall from bus

In 1986, she was introduced to Brother McNally. Impressed by his dedication to the arts, she took up his offer to teach printmaking at Lasalle because it would allow her to be near her family.

Used to independence, she lived alone in a flat in Marshall Road, juggling teaching with exhibitions around the world. Sometimes she wondered if her hectic life was to blame for her increasing headaches and bouts of giddiness.

One such attack caused her to fall from a bus in June 1988 and soon after, she was told she had a brain abscess. She went for surgery to treat it in August.

'After I regained consciousness, everything was a blur,' she recalls.

The horror of the event seeps through even in her measured tones, resigned to fate after two decades.

She could no longer distinguish faces, forms, letters or signs. She could tell the difference between light and shadow and make a guess at strong colours but that was little help to an artist whose eyes were her most precious tool.

And her usual retreat was denied her, because the avid reader of fiction and philosophy could no longer make out the written word.

A lover of classic literature in English and Chinese, she had been publishing essays and short stories in Chinese since 1978 and wrote a column for the now defunct Nanyang Siang Pau newspaper.

'I was in a very pathetic state,' she says frankly. 'I resigned from Lasalle, thinking I could do nothing now.'

The support of family and friends helped, as did the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped. Case workers went to her home and taught her to use a cane and take buses. She learnt to distinguish money by the size of notes and coins and took comfort in audio books that friends and students sent.

A visit from Brother McNally ended her despair. He insisted she return to work at Lasalle and would not take no for an answer.

'He was very compassionate. He said he would provide me with an assistant. I was so grateful to him that I thought, why not just try and see.'

And try she did, heading back to Lasalle in 1989.

She had to re-learn how to teach printmaking techniques, relying on the hands of a student assistant. A machine donated by a friend allowed her to scan in typewritten text and convert it to speech so she could make use of the school library. Slowly she gained confidence and continued to teach at the school till 1995.

She learnt to compensate for the lack of sight, trusting in intuition and her tactile senses. Her focus turned to sculpture and mixed media, as 3-D material and thick, vivid paints, such as acrylic, allow her to exert greater control over what she created.

'If you have ideas, it is not difficult to do art,' she says, adding that she is frustrated at times by her inability to work more with colour.

'Because I can't see properly, I can't tell how colours turn out. I have to learn to let go,' she says.

From 1992, she began venturing farther afield, starting with a residency at San Jose State University in California, then art exhibitions organised by Very Special Art (VSA), a Singapore charity that aids artists with disabilities.

VSA and its international affiliates have helped her to exhibit her work and teach in countries including China, Japan, the US and Belgium. Sometimes she travels alone, relying on the kindness of strangers, sometimes with students or friends.

Family and friends have been key players in her professional recovery, she says. Her sisters transcribe her writings in Chinese. She has published 12 books.

Fellow artists offer professional support and assistance. Visual artist Koh Nguang How, 46, first met Chng in 1986. He helped her transport paper and clay models to Thailand for casting in bronze and ferried them back for her Metamorphosis exhibition at Fort Canning Arts Centre in 1996.

In 2006, when she expressed a desire to exhibit works created from 'kim chiam' (dried lily buds), he brought in live plants from Genting Highlands to allow her to gain a greater appreciation of the material.

He dismisses all this as 'technical assistance', emphasising that the original ideas and final work are Chng's alone.

'It is important for people to know that she creates the work herself. Sometimes she needs assistance but do not underestimate her,' he says.

He hopes she will be recognised as a sculptor and artist beyond printmaking, pointing out the huge body of work she has created since losing her sight.

He says: 'Looking at her work from her student days to now, I am more impressed because this artist just does not give up.'

Equally admiring is Chng's former student Juan Wong, 37, who studied under her at Lasalle.

'She is very approachable and friendly, and always willing to share and help the needy,' says Wong.

Chng has no room for self-pity in her life. Since 1988, her hands have made up for her eyes. Her work table is littered with leather she has snipped into tiny fish, animal and human forms, no bigger than a finger. Delicate details such as fins, eyes and manes are clearly visible. Sometimes she may cut right through the material and destroy a piece that is nearly finished but she just shrugs and moves on: 'You have to learn to accept things.'

This year, she plans to hold an exhibition of mixed-media works on the theme Who Am I? Who Are You? Where Is The Heart?. It stems from a game students and friends often play with her, standing before her and asking her to guess who they are.

'It is a joke but for a lot of us, we know only our appearance, we do not know our true selves or true capacity,' she explains.

She enjoys challenging her own boundaries, from experimenting with various textures of clay for sculpture or prints, to taking trips on her own. She retains the sense of adventure that saw her through her student days, when she worked as a chambermaid in hotels, in the post office sorting mail, and as a short-order cook in a take-out shop to make ends meet.

She now gets her kicks from travelling, to places as remote as north Pakistan or as near as Melbourne, where she will travel this month to visit a student. 'I will look around, have new experiences and meet interesting people,' she says excitedly. The people she meets on her journeys are a delight and source of inspiration. Street children she taught in Cambodia in 2008, for example, led her to create a work on the Khmer Rouge genocide.

She admits that in unfamiliar locations, she is likely to fall into drains, be bumped about by crowds or even be cheated, but she would rather focus on the good experiences.

'There are a lot of good and kind people. I have met many angels - passers-by who take me to places or ask if I need help. Maybe this time, I will even meet Mr Right,' she adds with a smile.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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