Engineer forges new career in art

Tang Kok Soo with his winning work, Elephants Crossing The Water.
Tang Kok Soo with his winning work, Elephants Crossing The Water. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

To return to his love of painting, artist Tang Kok Soo left his engineering job and moved into a smaller flat

When he was 24, painter Tang Kok Soo made the painful choice to give up the art he loved.

By day, he was an engineer. By night, he painted the vistas of his dreams. But juggling the two was taking a toll on his craft.

"Art is sacred to me," says Tang, now 41, in Mandarin. "Deep inside, I was lacking something. I found I could not pick up a brush until I had fixed myself."

It would be a decade before he returned to his canvas. This time, he quit his job, sold his flat and threw himself whole-heartedly into painting.

His gamble paid off when his work, Elephants Crossing The Water, won the Gold award in the Established Artist category for Singapore at the UOB Painting Of The Year competition last year.

  • VIEW IT / TANG AND TRANQUILITY

  • WHERE: UOB Art Gallery, UOB Plaza 1, 80 Raffles Place

    WHEN: Wednesday to May 19, 9am to 6.30pm daily

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.uobpoy.com

He will have his first solo exhibition at the UOB Art Gallery from Wednesday. It will feature 11 paintings from his Stone series, which Elephants is part of, as well as five more whimsical watercolour cityscapes.

Tang, who was born in Johor and grew up in Brunei before moving to Singapore when he was 11, started painting when he was 16, inspired by the work of pioneer Nanyang ink painter Chen Chong Swee.

After school, he would spend hours at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, hoping to immerse himself in the world of artists.

But his dreams of becoming one of them had to be shelved when his father, a crane driver, and mother, a hairdresser and tailor, disapproved. His father was convinced after reading newspaper reports that only a handful of artists out of many would make it big and, even then, only after they were dead.

Tang, the only child, got a job instead in the semi-conductor industry and turned his back on painting until he was 34, when he ran into two old friends who had become successful artists.

"I realised that for the past 10 years, I had been empty," he says.

He started painting again.

Four years later, he left his job to become a full-time artist and downgraded from a five-room to a three-room flat. He drew no income for the first two years, during which his wife, who works in administration, supported him financially. The couple have no children.

A year ago, he began the Stone series - abstract mixed-media pieces of blocks of textured stone. Some hint at the forms of elephants, others at people.

"All this comes out of my understanding of art," says Tang. "The elephants, the stones, the mountains, they rise from it. There is a strength and power in them - that must come from the heart of the artist."

The series has earned him recognition. After the UOB award, he exhibited at the UOB Art Space at Art Stage Singapore in January and sold his painting Joyfulness for a five-figure sum.

Elephants was also chosen to appear on the cover of UOB's annual report, which was released at the end of last month.

Ms Lilian Chong, UOB's senior vice-president of group strategic communications and customer advocacy, says: "Tang's winning painting from his Stone series portrays steady and strong-willed elephants moving forward in unity, purpose and determination. It is our desire that the visitors of this exhibition will be inspired to face new challenges with the same tenacity."

Tang is not about to rest on his laurels. A Buddhist and Confucianist, he believes he is entering a crucial phase of his career, where two roads diverge.

"There is a hall of art which every artist strives to reach. Inside the hall, there are two doors. One leads to heaven, the other to hell," he says. "Only those artists who are pure of heart will make it to paradise. If your mind is clouded, it is easy to pick the door to hell.

"Right now, I am standing on the threshold of the hall. I must choose very carefully where I go from here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Engineer forges new career in art'. Print Edition | Subscribe