Champions of culture

Creating beautiful yet realistic paintings

Playwright Haresh Sharma, realist painter Chua Mia Tee, avant-garde musician Margaret Leng Tan and Chinese-language novelist Lin Gao received the nation’s highest artistic honour at the Istana last night. Life interviews this year’s recipients of the Cultural Medallion

Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in Singapore would have seen Chua Mia Tee's work.

His portrait of the late President Yusof Ishak is found on Singapore's currency notes. The realist painter's works are also in the national art collection of art.

On receiving the Cultural Medallion, the Mandarin-speaking artist, 84, says: "I have always found painting to be a joy and am thankful for the recognition and award."

He plans to use the project fund from the award to print a commemorative album of his works.

Born in Shantou, China, he and his family moved to Singapore in 1941 during the Sino-Japanese War.

Well known for his paintings that capture life in Singapore during the turbulent 1950s of racial riots and student demonstrations, he works in a grittier social-realist style that sets him apart from his peers, many of whom paint in the more lyrical Nanyang style originating from 1940s and 1950s Malaya.

Who and/or what has been the biggest influence on your art?

I came under the influence of my father from a young age. He was a businessman, but well versed in classical Chinese and he enjoyed painting.

As a child, I watched him paint and draw and wanted to do the same.

Most parents of my father's generation would not have encouraged their only son to pursue painting. A child who became an artist then was considered useless.

But my father never objected. In fact, he encouraged me to paint and allowed me to enrol at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1950.

Another thing that influenced my art was the books I found in a store room under the stairs of the academy.

There must have been about 100 books, including picture albums of works by famous artists such as Rembrandt, Delacroix and Xu Beihong, as well as essays on realism in art.

The books - I read all of them - shaped my views about art.

I believe that art must be realistic, virtuous and beautiful. I have abided by these values in my work throughout my 65-year career, be it in portraits, landscapes or paintings of animals.

Your proudest achievement so far?

I have been commissioned to paint portraits of Singapore's presidents, prime ministers and ministers, as well as top civil servants and businessmen, from the 1970s until 2006, when I stopped accepting commissioned work.

To have been able to meet these very important people, spend time in close proximity with them, is an honour not given to many.

What do you consider your greatest failure?

I don't think I have failed at anything.

I have always been happy and contented in life. I have a great wife (Lee Boon Ngan) who is herself an accomplished painter and also a good mother.

Because she took such good care of the family, I have been able to concentrate on my art.

I never start on a painting unless I am sure I can do it well. I sign it only when I am satisfied with it. I do not have unsigned paintings sitting around.

Is there anything you would do differently?

I have no regrets, so I would not do anything differently. I would still choose to be an artist.

I have friends who have done well in life and struck it rich in business, but are burdened by their wealth. I have few worries.

What do you plan to do with the $80,000 Cultural Medallion grant?

Most of my works are in the hands of private collectors so I would like to print a commemorative album that lets others see my works.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'Creating beautiful yet realistic paintings'. Print Edition | Subscribe