Artist drawn to fast disappearing spiral staircases

Lee Choon Kee.
Lee Choon Kee.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

For the last three years, veteran watercolourist Lee Choon Kee, 72, has been visiting the back lanes of old estates in Singapore, such as those in Geylang, Joo Chiat, Serangoon, Katong, Chinatown and Bukit Timah.

The subject of his interest - spiral staircases. He says: "I decided to paint spiral staircases because these are fast disappearing with redevelopments, especially in the city areas in the past 30 years or so.

"I find the spiral staircases at the back of the old houses, usually between two and four or five storeys high, an interesting feature of old Singapore architecture not often captured on canvas by our artists."

The result of his three-year project is his solo exhibition, Spiral Staircase - Back Lane. It opened at Nanman Art Gallery in Tanglin Shopping Centre last Saturday and features 30 watercolour paintings, most of them measuring 56 by 76cm.


A spiral staircase in Geylang Lorong 38 that Lee Choon Kee painted in 2014. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

This is his fourth one-man show since he became a full-time painter in 1981. Lee graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) in 1965 and was a founding member of the Singapore Watercolour Society in 1969. A member of the now-defunct Equator Art Society, a leftist art group which promoted realist art here in the mid-1950s and 1960s, Lee was president of the Society of Chinese Artists between 2010 and 2013. He worked for more than 10 years as a graphic designer with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Housing And Development Board before he went into painting full-time.

He held his first solo exhibition in 2001 and his second 11 years later in 2012. His last was held in Penang in 2013. Last year, his large painting of a row of houses with spiral staircases he painted at Lavender Street, measuring 75 by 105cm, won him the first prize in the Western Painting category of the Tan Tsze Chor Art Competition and $3,000 cash. But the work is not among those in the exhibition due to its size.

  • VIEW IT / SPIRAL STAIRCASE - BACK LANE

  • WHERE: Nanman Art Gallery, 19 Tanglin Road, Tanglin Shopping Centre, 03-54

    WHEN: Till July 3, daily from 11am to 6pm

    ADMISSION: Free

He says that while working on the paintings for this exhibition, he was often chased away by residents or stray dogs: "Nobody likes it when you paint the back of his house."

On the urgency to paint such houses with spiral staircases, he says: "There was a block of houses with spiral staircases in Joo Chiat which disappeared less than a month after I had painted it."

He says he plans to paint "places of worship such as temples and churches here" after the current exhibition.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'Artist drawn to fast disappearing spiral staircases'. Print Edition | Subscribe