Art is Ageless

Published on 18 August 2015

Never a better time to let imagination take flight,
as this year’s Silver Arts festival proves!

TEXT BY JO TAN

It’s very hard finding experienced senior stage actors,” says Benjamin Ho (right), artistic director of puppet theatre company Paper Monkey Theatre. “You can count them on your fingers,” he adds with a sigh, recalling how he had great difficulty finding an actress to play the titular Mama in the company’s acclaimed 2012 production of Mama Looking for Her Cat.

“So instead of getting an experienced stage actress for Mama, I got my friend’s mother, Tan Joo Geok. She had no training before the show, she kept worrying she couldn’t handle it. Then on opening night, she just flew.”

Ho hopes to see similar revelations while writing and directing An Enchanted Evening With Silver Gems, the opening act for this year’s Silver Arts festival. Organised by the National Arts Council, this unique arts festival is for seniors aged 55 and above, and their families, but anyone can join in the fun. Just as An Enchanted Evening With Silver Gems features senior actors, singers and musicians alongside younger artists, the rest of the festival likewise boasts over 100 artists and art groups putting up artsy entertainment either for or by seniors.

“It’s celebrating the involvement of seniors with art. I’ve seen some wonderful art by elders, which sometimes even shocks you because of the amount of life experience they can put into it! I remember once directing something for The Necessary Stage’s Theatre for Seniors (TFS) programme. There was a tricky scene where a wife finds out her husband has been visiting another lady’s house, which this sweet old woman asked to try. It was incredible, like all hell broke loose. After the scene, she was smiling again. She explained that she had caught her husband cheating before; it was okay now, but she could still use the memory,” says Ho.

“It also helps that many also have a real passion for art — don’t assume your parents or grandparents never had dreams! Just like how they might have told you to focus on practical things, they may have given up dreams of pursuing artistic passions too. And now that their children are grown, they are free to take up art again.”

LIFELONG LEARNING

One such senior is 59 year-old Lin Yuexia, a member of the Hainan Hwee Kuan Harmonica Orchestra that will be playing an evergreen repertoire at the Silver Arts festival comprising everything from Chinese classics to the hip-loosening ‘Mambo Italiano’. “When I was a student, I played the harmonica passingly, and then didn’t touch it for decades. I never thought that one day I would be travelling to overseas harmonica festivals with the Orchestra,” shares Lin.

“I joined the Orchestra about 11 years ago when I was almost 50, getting older and stressed from work. A friend said, ‘Come join, it will help you relax.’ I considered the fact that rehearsals are every Saturday, and that would take time away from my family. But I tried it and 11 years down, I’ve learnt so much — relearning the harmonica, even percussion, song composition and showmanship. Sometimes people wonder if members in their 60s or older can still learn. But the music, activities, companionship and creativity exercise your brain and improve your memory; you’re also more capable when you’re cheerful.

“I’m still not the best, but I will keep playing as long as I’m able. I’ve had this passion for music since I was young and I finally have a chance to encounter it again, so why would I give it up? And while I was worried about it taking time from family, on occasions when we have the week off, my family are the ones who ask, ‘Mummy, why aren’t you going for harmonica rehearsal?’ They know it keeps me young! Our happiness infects them too.”

IN THE PRIME Dancers from semi-professional dance company Prime (UK), demonstrate how stunningly seniors can strut their stuff at dance performances and workshops.

OLD & NEW

Ho dismisses concerns that older enthusiasts shouldn’t start art because they’re too aged to become accomplished at it. “Some skills really benefit from life experience and to me, skill level isn’t always the most important. Okay, if you try dancing above a certain age you’re not so flexible, you can’t do a perfect leap, but sometimes the fun of trying something new after many years, that happiness and sense of play, is more wonderful for the audience to watch than skill.”

Seniors can discover their particular passion at myriad festival programmes — poetry explorations, senior dance workshops, film-making workshops, art installation projects and even participatory food art sessions.

And while art is always generally good for seniors, some even become great at it. Among the acts are two senior dance troupes: the highly-active and celebrated Singaporean collective Dance Dynamics, who will present both ballet and Chinese Folk Dance, as well as Scottish semi-professional dance company Prime, which will be performing here for the first time.

GOING STRONG Seniors can get creative through harmonica workshops by the Singapore Broadway Harmonica Ensemble, or attend a Malay lyrics-writing session by Mohd Khair Bin Mohd Yasin.

SENIORS IN THE MOMENT

We single out three bright-eyed, bushy-tailed seniors who make heads turn.

Patrick Teo

Patrick Teo Now in his 70s, award-winning ex-jewellery designer Patrick Teo (right) decided to turn professional as a painter only 12 years ago. “Painting has always been my passion. In my youth, I joined the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and studied under Georgette Chen some time around 1959 or 1960, even though my mother kept telling me I would become a pauper like Vincent Van Gogh,” reminisces Teo.

“To be fair, it was really an impoverished era under British rule, with many locals unable to find jobs, let alone survive as artists. I used my training to design for advertising agencies and later, jewellery. But when I was 63, the art market seemed to be in full steam, so I decided to try painting again.

“It was daunting. People didn’t like my work. But I didn’t give up. I visited many galleries and auction houses and did a lot of research in the library about Matisse, Monet and yes, Van Gogh. And I remembered Georgette’s own impressive style. I experimented and gradually developed my own linear technique, creating a multi-coloured texture when I paint. And one day, Eagle’s Eye Art Gallery gave me a chance.”

Since then, Teo has earned critical acclaim and has been featured in several exhibitions including a recent solo exhibition, Almost Forgotten, featuring scenes of samsui women, coolies and other everyday Singaporeans of the 1950s and ’60s. “Many young people have told me they’re fascinated by the stories related in the paintings. And while I paint old scenes, I don’t feel old. My passion is there and my energy to fulfil my passion is there, so when I paint I am in a very young mood.”

PHOTO  Eagle’s Eye Art Gallery
ART KNOCKS Many of Patrick Teo’s distinctive paintings portray scenes of a bygone era.

Michael Tan

Michael Tan, 66 , has worked harder than most think a senior physically capable of, to win steady acting employment, a Life! Theatre Awards Best Ensemble nod, and a starring movie role, just to name a few.

“It’s nothing,” says the actor who also runs a small business part-time. “I’m fortunate because all these younger directors and actors gave me a chance to work with them. I never had formal training when I was younger, I only joined The Necessary Stage’s Theatre for Seniors (TFS) programme at age 60 when I thought I was going to retire and wanted a hobby.”

Other than TFS, Tan has also attended puppetry workshops and Nine Years Theatre’s Mandarin diction courses among others. “It’s precisely because I’m ageing that I have to do these things now. I want to try as many things as people will let me.” And they have. Tan has appeared in advertisements; was part of the award-winning ensemble in a wordy Mandarin edition of the classic Twelve Angry Men; received critical acclaim for intense physical piece The Malay Man and His Chinese Father where he walked about in briefs, went through taxing physical routines and carried his fully-grown co-actor several times. Coming up, look out for this active ager in Royston Tan’s new movie 3688, where he plays one of the major characters.

PHOTO The Necessary Stage

Fanny Lai

Fanny Lai has always been a high flyer: other than being McDonald’s Singapore’s Director of Marketing and Communications for 12 years and later, Group Chief Executive of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, she also travels to distant countries to drive through deserts and scale glaciers. But when it comes to her relatively new graphic novel pursuits, she’s a local girl through and through.

Lai published her first graphic novel, Nini in Changi Village, in 2013, which she wrote and illustrated despite having no formal art training. Based on her own idyllic adventures growing up in a 1950s Changi Village kampong, the work was so well-received, it was adapted into a children’s play by The Theatre Practice. She’s also just published Nini Eat First Talk Later, about food culture in the 1960s, and continues to draw comic strips about Singapore on Fannylai.com.

Lai was always interested in art, but remembers being told by her parents that pursuing it as a career was not viable. At 55, and several high-level jobs later, she figured she had probably earned her right to finally pursue her passion. She took a computer art course and asked to be mentored by Johnny Lau (the comic genius behind Mr Kiasu) before proceeding to create her successful books.

Not content with solo literary endeavours, she also partnered her husband Bjorn Olesen, who pursued wildlife photography after retirement, to co-write the coffee-table book A Visual Celebration of Giant Pandas, a fundraising initiative for the World Wildlife Fund, to be followed by A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife.

“I am privileged to be able to finally pursue my dreams and reclaim my creative spirits,” says Lai with a smile. “I never think of my age, only this: we should follow our hearts and be who we want to be. Remember, we only live once.”

SASSY STORYTELLER Fanny Lai has written graphic novels including Nini in Changi Village which was adapted into a play; she also co-wrote coffee-table book A Visual Celebration of Giant Pandas.

SILVER PLATTER

Selected highlights of Silver Arts 2015

An Enchanted Evening With Silver Gems
This festival kicks off with an intergenerational music theatre concert, with musicians and actors of different ages from Jubilee Orchestra, Kids Philharmonic and more. Led by artistic director Quek Ling Kiong.

2 September, 2.30pm & 7.30pm,
Republic Cultural Centre Theatre, Republic Polytechnic

Silver Films
This series of sparkling locally-lensed short films revolve around the lives of Singapore seniors — one of the films is even freshly made by seniors themselves.

5-27 September, various times & venues.
Visit silverfilms2015.peatix.com to register.

Impression
This reading presentation is for both seniors and younger participants, since it seeks to show how we can bridge generations through creative writing. Conducted in Tamil.

26 September, 4pm,
Jurong West Public Library

Soundtracks of Our Lives
Hear jazz legend Jeremy Monteiro and his band, plus a company of singers like Rani Singam and Melissa Tham, perform evocative tunes from the 1960s and ’70s.

19 September, 3pm,
National Library Building Plaza

PHOTO  Russel Wong
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