Finding space for art: A look at the studios of five artists

Artists (clockwise from top left) Dawn Ng, Jahan Loh, Ruben Pang, Kanchana Gupta and Tay Bak Chiang in their studios.
Artists (clockwise from top left) Dawn Ng, Jahan Loh, Ruben Pang, Kanchana Gupta and Tay Bak Chiang in their studios.ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN, JASMINE CHOONG, JOSEPH CHUA, KHALID BABA

The romantic cliche of the starving artist in a garrett is so 18th century.

In Singapore, you would more likely find artists slogging away in industrial areas. Cold economics means the cheaper spaces artists can afford are usually located in far-flung corners of the island. And artists often worry about being evicted once leases expire.

Even artists based at Goodman Arts Centre, the headquarters for the National Arts Council (NAC), are not spared from the churn.

An open call, which will last six weeks, is going out this month for 31 spaces at Goodman Arts Centre.

An NAC spokesman says the spaces are available for rental, as some tenants have reached the end of their three-year leases while others are vacating ahead of lease renewals.

There are currently 26 tenants occupying the 31 spaces available, with some occupying more than one unit.

According to the NAC, from 1985, the gross floor area (GFA) for arts housing has grown by about five times, from 18,170 sq m to 88,352 sq m. The GFA has been maxed out.

Ms Sabrina Chin, NAC's director, precinct development, says: "As arts spaces are finite, it is crucial for the NAC to diversify infrastructure support by unlocking more arts spaces through schemes such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Community/Sports Facility Scheme."

She adds that under the scheme, the NAC has helped more than 10 arts groups co-locate in alternative spaces such as shopping malls.

For other artists, their space solutions come in the form of light industrial spaces that offer room to work.

Here is a peek at the studio spaces of five artists.

Dawn Ng, 37


Artist Dawn Ng spent about $15,000 to equip her current space with lighting, shelves and suspension rigs. ST PHOTO: JOSEPH CHUA

The pleasant scent of citronella greets you as you step into artist Dawn Ng's studio. Music, tuned to a gentle murmur, drifts from a player in a corner. The corner unit, located in a light industrial building in Kallang, boasts huge windows along two walls. This bathes the cool white space with natural light, making it a perfect palimpsest for an artist.

Ng has just renewed the lease after two years in the 1,000 sq ft space. While she is reluctant to say how much rent she pays, a check on CommercialGuru.com shows that 950 to 980 sq ft spaces go for between $2,700 and $3,100 a month.

She is so fond of the space she has offered to buy it, but the landlord declined to sell. She worries about leases like any other business, and says that she had to leave her first studio space at Mohamed Sultan Road because the landlord doubled the rental.

She spent about $15,000 to equip her current space with lighting, shelves and suspension rigs: "A large part of my work is installation based, so that really helps with prototyping, when you have to hang something or lift something."

Being represented by gallery Sullivan+Strumpf Singapore allows Ng to focus on art making rather than worrying about the business side of things, but she still keeps a keen eye on the bottomline: "I run a really tight ship. Everything I make goes into the next project and the rent."

For the past year, she has been experimenting with materials for a new project in which she freezes items in blocks of coloured ice and then captures the melting process. Her experiments have been documented meticulously in detailed spreadsheets which she shows to this reporter.

She says: "The studio is the place I come to and I play very seriously.

"I play harder than anyone I know. I'm so obsessive and fanatical about the play that it becomes something else."

Jahan Loh, 43


Artist Jahan Loh bought his studio for about $600,000 10 years ago after returning to Singapore from Taipei where he was based for a decade. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

"I'm not a tidy person," artist Jahan Loh says a bit sheepishly. The self-confessed hoarder gestures at the canvases, collectible toys and catalogues cluttering up his 1,000 sq ft studio and calls it "my organised mess".

The space feels smaller also because he is painting furiously for an upcoming show in Beijing, and there are more than 10 oversized works lining the space in a light industrial estate in Mandai Road. The new series, titled Intergalactic Dreams, tackles the theme of climate change. It features tight close-ups of anxious faces, painted in the bright acrylics and in an anime-inspired style.

The artist, who is married, says his paintings are his babies.

He is one of the few artists lucky enough to own his studio, which he bought for about $600,000 10 years ago after returning to Singapore from Taipei where he was based for a decade.

He had two conditions when he was hunting for a space: "I was looking for freehold and something not far from my home."

He adds that he preferred an industrial space, as he sometimes works with spray paints and has to deal with fumes. He realised during his hunt that "space is a luxury here". In Taipei, his studio occupied 2,000 sq ft.

But he credits Taipei with providing him seed funding to purchase his studio in Singapore. Rather than renting an apartment when he moved there, he bought a home which he later flipped at double the price.

He deadpans that there is a bright side to expensive real estate: "As an artist, this is your retirement plan."

Ruben Pang, 29


The floor space in Ruben Pang's studio is dominated by amplifiers, a drum kit, microphone stands and masses of wires. ST PHOTO: JASMINE CHOONG

The floor space in Ruben Pang's studio is dominated by amplifiers, a drum kit, microphone stands and masses of wires. When he is not busy painting works for his new show in Milan, the artist is jamming with his bandmates, drummer Dane Tan, 28, and bassist Adam Staley Groves, 42. The band has recorded an album which will be issued on vinyl by an Iowa-based label later this year, and they are thinking about performing a live gig.

Pang, who plays the guitar, says: "Art and music are just two sets of skills I happen to have."

Asked if he is serious about making music, he says dryly: "It's always been serious. I have a way of sucking the fun out of everything."

His 1,300 sq ft space is located in a light industrial park in Tuas. Pang says: "It has to be in an industrial building. The space makes sense because I need machinery and transportation."

The artist paints on heavy aluminium panels which can weigh between 10kg and 30kg. He started out painting in his flat, but notes matter of factly without rancour: "We do live in a city where neighbours complain about you."

He likes to work through the wee hours of the night, starting at 6pm and ending at 9am in the morning.

Although he has to travel an hour and a half from his Sembawang home to his studio, he says: "Being able to have any space is all you ask for as an artist."

He declines to reveal his rental costs, but CommercialGuru lists 1,000 to 1,800 sq ft spaces in the building at between $1,200 and $1,600 a month.

Although he can be considered a commercially successful artist, Pang does not take his finances for granted because, as he says with a surprising note of fatalism, "everything ends". But art is something he will always pursue: "I will always paint. It's just that the resources may not always be there."

Kanchana Gupta, 45


Artist Kanchana Gupta's studio is so tidy that it gives the impression of bareness. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Artist Kanchana Gupta offers tea - "I have 12 types" - and nuts when you visit her studio. She says laughingly: "I'm a mother. I feed people." She jokes that her kitchen trolley has enough supplies that she can live in her 650 sq ft studio for a few weeks.

Her studio is so tidy that it gives the impression of bareness. Her materials and supplies are lined up neatly under the wall of windows that lets natural light into the space. She is currently experimenting with compressing material into solid blocks of colour for her upcoming show at Sullivan+Strumpf in October.

The mother of a 14-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl says the studio is her incubator: "I needed a space that supports my thought and creative processes. And I needed a space separate from my living space."

The studio in a recently refurbished light industrial building in the Macpherson area suits her, as she is also fond of taking walks around the neighbourhood which, with its workshops and foreign worker dormitories, inspires her art practice.

"I source my materials from industrial sites," says the India-born artist who has been based here for more than a decade. "Sometimes I leave my windows open and I can smell the workers cooking rasam."

She says she cannot afford to be a full-time artist just yet. She supplements her income with freelance project management work. While she declines to reveal how much she pays in rental fees, a 616 sq ft space in her building is listed for $1,355 a month on CommercialGuru.

Tay Bak Chiang, 46


Artist Tay Bak Chiang bought his 1,140 sq ft space in a Woodlands industrial area in 2014 for $450,000 from the owner who purchased it for a mere $280,000 when the building was being constructed. ST PHOTO: JASMINE CHOONG

Soft-spoken artist Tay Bak Chiang jokes that his studio is proof he is not financially savvy. He bought his 1,140 sq ft space in a Woodlands industrial area in 2014 for $450,000 from the owner who purchased it for a mere $280,000 when the building was being constructed.

But he attributes his plunge into real estate with the experience of having had his own studio space at the National Arts Council's Goodman Arts Centre for three years.

"I used to have a room in my flat. But it's hard to plan for the long term, or do big work. As a professional artist, you need a studio space," says the artist, who is represented by iPreciation in Singapore and Cube Gallery in London.

His studio is both practical and comfortable. The floor is lined with hardy vinyl that mimicks the look of parquet but can withstand paint splashes and is easy to clean. He is proud to show off his Ikea Billy bookcases and is especially pleased with his red Ikea Pello armchair, "It's very comfortable. And it cost only about $100."

A well-worn Winnie the Pooh soft toy sprawled on the sofa lends the place a homey air. He lives just a few minutes' walk from his studio, and says he would occasionally camp overnight in the studio with his wife and 11-year-old daughter.