Where her art is concerned, blind sculptor and writer Chng Seok Tin has crystal clear vision. While she can only make out a tenth of what we’d normally see – mostly as a pattern of shadows and light and bright colours – she sees life with a clarity that makes most envious.
Make no mistake: 55-year-old Seok Tin is not a blind artist who made good. She is an artist foremost, who happens to have lost most of her sight. And it is for her accomplishments that she has earned the vote for Her World Woman of the Year 2001.
In that year alone, she held at least four exhibitions of her works, published a book, Rainbow Bridge, and even helped run an art camp for a United Nations project in Bangkok.
With nimble fingers, she moulds soggy paper and wire or fashions figures of bronze or clay that speak volumes about human emotion. Two lovers entwined, standing on just one pair of legs in a comment on losing identity; a man standing head bowed, weighed down by a rice bowl around his neck.
Her work is seldom pretty but critics are stirred by the wit and satire with which she infuses her pieces. Impressive, considering that she only switched mediums when she lost her sight at the peak of her career as a printmaker of international repute.
The untimely tragedy took place in 1988 when she was 41. While on a London trip with some Nanyang Fine Arts students she was teaching, she tripped and fell, hitting her head while running for a bus. She suffered dizzy spells and was operated on twice to remove an offending abscess in her brain. Yet, terrifyingly, she started losing her sight, an affliction that even today her doctors can’t explain.
But Seok Tin hasn’t allowed the accident to be more than a blip in her life. “It’s just something that you have to adapt to,” she dismisses with a chuckle. She is stoic about her impairment, making digs at her own condition, like the day she turned her house upside down to find three precious cheques—which she had neatly tucked away in a bag. “Age isn’t helping my eyesight,” she jokes.
Though scores of doctors and Chinese physicians from Singapore to Shanghai have long dismissed any possibility of recovery, Seok Tin holds the hope that her vision will improve. “I swear I can see a little more at least with one of my eyes,” she says. That’s why she continues to peer at everything with her trusty magnifying glass—from Chinese newspaper headlines 2cm wide, to the print detail on her papier mâché figures, even shadows on walls.
She’s learnt to see with both her hands and mind. And when her work needs to be visually checked (like prints on her sculptures), she relies on friends and hired assistants to double-check her work. Seok Tin even continues to write prolifically. She has devised a system of folding paper into thin strips so she can print neatly on the margins. And, really, her handwriting is as good as the average person’s.
Even her dressing doesn’t hint at her disability. She takes pride in matching her ethnic lilac blouse with a necklace of purple stones. When it comes to getting from Point A to Point B, she only uses a cane when she travels on roads or in unfamiliar places. As she potters about her Telok Kurau studio, you’d hardly believe she is visually impaired by the way she briskly skips over the small drains in flip flops and maneuvers herself deftly around the clutter of stools and shelves.
Seok Tin lives in a four-room Haig Road flat with her mentally retarded eldest sister and elderly parents, one of whom is stroke-ridden. While she has a maid and siblings to help, she is essentially responsible for their day-to-day needs. Yet the strain, if any, hardly shows. In her usual unflappable manner, she says it’s just one of the “little hurdles” she’s got to live with.
INSPIRATION AND INSIGHT
As a single woman devoted solely to her craft, Seok Tin is always at work, whether it’s in the cramped Haig Road flat or the organised chaos of her studio in Telok Kurau. It’s a mad jumble to visitors, but a haven for her.
When she does take time out, it’s spent listening to borrowed audiobooks or those that friends have read and recorded for her. She’s inspired by new places, people she talks to, and stories she hears. She relies on others to interpret the details for her, whether it’s a pretty new building they’ve just been driven past or art pieces on display.
Still, the transition she made from seeing with her eyes to seeing with her hands was a trying period. Initially, she closeted herself away for six months, battling depression and suicidal feelings as she gradually lost more of her sight. Then, helped by friends, she allowed herself to be lured back to work within the year as a printmaking teacher at the newly established Lasalle School of the Arts by sculptor Brother Joseph McNally. She did it for six years before giving up because her sight worsened. While she has not totally given up printmaking – she founded the Printmaking Society in 1980 and still heads the small association – she has “diversified” to other media instead.
Art is art, whichever of the senses you have to rely on. She says, “The material is just to translate your feelings and sentiment.”
And some say that like the phoenix which rises from the ashes, her creations have become even better—more layered, honest and infused with Seok Tin’s brand of wry wit.
Notes Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh, who was also the former chairman of the National Arts Council: “I would say her prints constitute her best work, but her recent works are very interesting.”
Adds eye surgeon and art patron Dr Geh Min, who was on the Woman of the Year nomination panel, and had been following Seok Tin’s work even before she lost her sight: “She’s shown that eyesight and vision are not synonymous, and has shown far greater vision as an artist and person by seeing not with her eyes but the mind.”
Seok Tin’s artistic streak extends beyond sculpture. An accomplished writer as well, she was a columnist between 1974 and 1988 with the first Nanyang Xiang Pau and more recently with Lianhe Zaobao. Known for her sharp satirical take on social issues, she has also done art reviews, travelogues, and short essays based on her jaunts abroad as well as her stay in Britain. She has published 10 books in Chinese, the latest being Rainbow Dream, a compilation of some of her published and unpublished works. More than half of the books were published after she lost her sight.
Another little-known fact: That she wrote the lyrics to the song “Step Out of the Darkness, My Friend”, which Kit Chan (Her World’s first Young Achiever winner) made famous. Seok Tin first wrote it as a poem for the Wataboshi Movement which promotes performing arts for the handicapped. It remains one of Kit’s favourite pieces: “It’s a song I like to sing at schools and charities because it’s so compassionate and optimistic.”
BLESSING IN DISGUISE
While Seok Tin says her craft as an artist was her source of rehabilitation, it was the blindness, she says, that ironically opened her eyes to the world. For one, it’s made her calmer.
“I’m known for being ya jian zhui li (caustic and sharp-tongued). I used to get angry and frustrated with everything. But then I realised, there’s no point getting so worked up. I’d only be driving myself to an early grave.”
Now her inner calm rubs off on all those who meet her. Says Raymond Lau, 33, a fellow artist who calls her kai ma or godmother: “These tai-tai types come and meet her out of curiosity and pity. But at the end of the day, they are the ones opening up their personal problems to her and getting comfort and help.
Lau, a recipient of the National Arts Council Young Artist of the Year Award for 2000, counts her as an important mentor and inspiration: “People ask why I call her godmother when I could get a richer, more worthy patron. But who else could be richer than her in spirit and soul?”
Never mind that she struggles to earn a living. Others come first. For years, she’d had to lead a nomadic lifestyle in search of cheap studios before settling into the old Lasalle campus at Telok Kurau for $70 a month. While her work can go for between $4500 to a rare princely $20,000 for commissioned work, regular money is hard to come by. Because of her handicap, she sometimes needs assistants to help her execute her ideas—and that’s about $60 a day.
Yet she will fork out a few hundred dollars to help send a poor student on a study trip. Or buy a painting to aid a fellow artist. Related Raymond Lau: “Last year, when I fell into a slump, she bought one of my paintings saying that it was on behalf of a friend. Then she suggested I use the $1,000 for a Pakistani trip, to get inspired. I was so angry when I found out, but she just shrugged it off, saying she wanted me to snap out of it.”
If there’s an art in living, Seok Tin has shown us how. And her formula is simple: Just have an open mind. “You can complain about social evils. But that’s life. Better to accept that life is like that, rather than wallow in frustration.”
1965-75: Taught Chinese at Tanjong Katong Girls’ School after graduating from the Teacher’s Training College
1972: Graduated from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) with a diploma in Western Painting
1975-85: Spent a decade abroad studying at the prestigious St Martin School of Arts and Paris’ Atelier 17, among others, returning to Singapore with two master’s degrees in the fine arts
1986-88: A much sought after artist, she had job offers from Hong Kong to Israel. But she chose to teach printmaking at Nafa instead
1990-97: After recuperating for a year, she went back to teaching, but at Lasalle School of the Arts (until 1995) and the National Institute of Education (until 1997)
1995: Wrote an award-winning song and represented Singapore at the 3rd Asia Wataboshi Music Festival, Shanghai
1998: Turned to art full-time
2001: Seok Tin finds time for community service at home and abroad. Last year she was invited by the United Nations Artists’ Programme (UNESCAP) to an art camp “Art for All” in Bangkok to inspire children with disabilities
Seok Tin has had a total of 61 exhibitions, many of them overseas, in the United States, Britain, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Her works vary from prints, paintings and monotypes to sculptures, mixed media and installations.
She held 18 solo exhibitions, the latest being last year’s “Life, Like Chess”, a critically acclaimed exhibition of sculptures and mixed media influenced by I-Ching at Sculpture Square.
Her work has come a long way since the first solo exhibition she held on fine prints at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1979. Then, it was more two dimensional, figurative, even if it was creative and spontaneous. Not one to typecast her work into specific themes, her exhibitions have always had a rich visual quality to them. Her collection From Water Series to the Floating World (1987) introduced much colour and texture with not just paper and print but also clay.
Though she lost her sight, her work lost none of that lush quality. In fact, it became bolder in colour. Her 1989 exhibition, “Works by Chng Seok Tin”, her first since the tragedy, left no doubt about that.