How did an engineer end up a painter? Henry Lee describes his winding journey as a return to his first love. By Pamela Ho
Published on 26 January 2017
He’s a sold-out artist at Art Stage Singapore 2015 — but Henry Lee makes no big deal of it. “I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to exhibit at Art Stage,” he says. “As a full-time artist, I’ve been fortunate to get by with proceeds from sales, some part-time work, and watching my finances like a hawk.”
When you consider Lee graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in chemical engineering in 2006, and has worked full-time in the publishing industry, you suspect his decision to become an artist is a leap of faith, tagged with an opportunity cost.
“The scenic route was necessary because it took me a while to realise art was my first love! But my fondest childhood memories are of days spent filling up drawing blocks with maps of imaginary cities I created. It just didn’t occur to me that I could develop it beyond a hobby,” he discloses, explaining that sci-fi movies and fantasy novels had always inspired him.
His eventual decision to enrol in art school was motivated by a simple wish. “I just wanted to learn how to draw. Having the engineering degree made the choice easier in a way; I had something to fall back on if I did badly in art school!” he half-jokes.
In 2010, Lee started his formal training at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), majoring in Western painting. His natural flair was quickly recognised. Upon completing his Diploma in Fine Art in 2013, he received the NAFA Best Graduate (Fine Art) Award and the prestigious NAFA President Award. He then went on to pursue a degree in Fine Art, graduating with First Class Honours.
Lee works largely with charcoal and acrylic. “As a medium, I feel charcoal is a visual reminder of the price we pay for progress — its sooty quality bears testament to the ever-increasing carbon debt human society incurs,” he says of this recurring theme in his works.
“We’ve become accustomed to treating nature as a resource to be exploited; and one of the more important roles of art, I feel, is to encourage people to reflect on and question the status quo.”
Looking back, Lee has no regrets. In fact, he has taken another step forward by enrolling in the MA in Fine Art programme at LASALLE College of the Arts. “I’m excited to be back in school! In addition to developing my artistic practice, I’m also keen to explore teaching opportunities in the future.”