Ong Kim Seng's global journey

Ong Kim Seng’s fascinating career as a Singaporean artist garnering international awards puts him ahead of the globalisation trend of the 21st century.
Ong Kim Seng’s fascinating career as a Singaporean artist garnering international awards puts him ahead of the globalisation trend of the 21st century.

Cafe Dewi is Ong Kim Seng's favourite place in Bali. It faces a tapestry of tiered greens that surround a placid lake from where vignettes of Balinese life are played out: the farmers slowly walking about amid clouds of smoke, incense or mist that rise into the air. It is an idyllic Asian pastoral scene in a hundred hues. The light is tropical bright but the trees that tier to the heavens shroud the harsh sunlight.

Ong paid justice to this grand landscape by painting the largest watercolour work of his career in 2010 when he felt he had achieved some measure of skill to master such a vast piece of work in that medium. Ong says his colours have evolved with the years, mellowing as with life. The 1.8m by 1.2m work was done in the studio from the much smaller plein air piece painted in Cafe Dewi years earlier.

Ong's mastery harmonises what could have been a cacophony of greens in the hands of a less skilful artist. Washes of hooker green, sap green, olive green, viridian, emerald, green gold, fir green, leaf green, light green, mint, saffron green, opaque oxide of chromium, apart from the primary yellows and cobalts, in varying tonal depths and transparency, capture the effects of shifting light on the verdant tropical landscape. The scene is one that evokes a sense of peace and meditative calm. For Ong, who is a lover of nature and an admirer of beauty, it is a scene he wishes to share with others.

Born on June 10, 1945, in Singapore, Ong has suffered for his passion for art since he was a child. His father died when he was a little boy, and he was overage by the time he started school. His mother worked as a washerwoman to bring up the family. His mother's hope was for Ong, her only son, to become a clerk. Exercising her motherly wisdom, she would tear up his art pieces that he might attend to a more mainstream and stable career.

This drove the young child to paint in secret, for the innate urge to express himself in art could not be snuffed out. By secondary school, his artistic forays had won him several awards at the Inter- School Art Exhibition, with publicity in the newspapers "betraying" his secret.


Ong Kim Seng’s works are known for their luminosity and calmness. PHOTO: ONG KIM SENG

His mother was still adamantly against his pursuit of painting, and he went on to work as a bill collector, welder, policeman before - with the "golden handshake" of several thousand dollars from his retrenchment as a technician in 1985 - becoming a full-time artist, with his wife's moral support.

In the 1960s, he joined a group led by artist-lecturer Chia Wai Hon, and his contemporaries were Chen Chong Swee, Lim Cheng Hoe, Ong Chye Cho and Choy Weng Yang.

The group would gather every Sunday at the Singapore River to paint the bumboats and the scenery of old Singapore. Each has become a notable artist since. Ong Kim Seng has sold hundreds of paintings, each a plein air work, lovingly interpreted on the spot.

A plein air teacher, he has taught at universities and academies in Asia, demonstrating for two hours at a stretch to groups of students under the hot sun. The master has exhibited with his students, lending his clout to help his students gain recognition.

At our interview, the artist talks about life and art. A self-taught painter, Ong has found recognition for his work but he is also wary of the vanities of life. Instead, he chooses to speak about art as a way of experiencing the world through the small and sublime, like the shape of a dewdrop on a leaf.

He also speaks about the transience of nature, and the irony of its permanence through art: The lilies that inspired Monet are no more, but his famous paintings forever capture their sublime beauty; many seasons have passed since Haystacks was painted, but the moment of summer-time light lives on in art.

He creates when he is relaxed and his mind is emptied of the stress and vagaries of life. It is in this peaceful state that he creates works of luminosity and calmness. Every brick, every shadow or light is lovingly interpreted as Ong ponders the depths and perspectives in his subject.

Watercolour is a most challenging medium - there is no room for mistakes; plein air painting in watercolour can be daunting in the face of an audience, students or terrain. Ong is never fazed as he has worked under various conditions - from teaching demonstrations to climbing the Himalayas to capture its beauty.

In the freezing cold of Nepal's Himalayas, the artist grappled with new conditions to create his watercolour paintings; this time the landscape was geometrical and the subject was almost aloof for watercolour works.

Trekking through Asia to represent the monumental and the mundane, he interprets Asia through traditionally Western frames, in a visual language quickly understood by an international audience. Yet the collectability of Ong's paintings is a double-edged sword, such as his prize-winning award for Nepal, for artists ought to be social agents of change, not highly lauded for easily understood paintings.

Ong has been conferred seven AWS Memorial Awards by the American Watercolour Society, and is still the only Dolphin Fellow who is not from the United States. He was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1990 for being one of the key figures in the development of the arts scene in Singapore. His collectors include Queen Elizabeth II and former United Nations chief Kofi Annan.

Ong's fascinating career as a Singaporean artist garnering international awards puts him ahead of the globalisation trend of the 21st century. Thirty years ago, Ong travelled and opened the world up for himself.

•Renee Lee is course leader for BA (Hons) Creative Industry Management at Nafa in collaboration with the University of Essex, Britain. She is a graduate of Nafa, University of Stirling and Nanyang Technological University where she studied fine art and design, management, film and media studies, and higher education pedagogies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'Ong Kim Seng's global journey'. Print Edition | Subscribe