Work Art Balance

Published on 26 June 2017

Even if one does not pursue the arts professionally, it’s still possible to keep the passion alive, as these extraordinary Singaporeans have proven.

By PAMELA HO, JO TAN & MELANIE LEE

We’ve all heard tragic tales of budding artists who’ve had to pick professional pay-slips over the pursuit of passion. Yet, a few Singaporeans show that just sometimes, you don’t have to choose. We meet six incredibly creative individuals who not only balance excellent art-making with their day jobs, but find it helps them get through the grind and even complements their professions.

YANG DERONG

Profession Creative director
Passion Painting

He was global image director of Esprit International (1994 to 2006), working in Hong Kong, London, New York and Dusseldorf; and spent seven years in Paris as directeur de style with fashion designer Jean Charles de Castelbajac — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Besides a career in fashion design, image and branding, and creative direction, Yang Derong has designed costumes for Singapore theatre — including Beauty World, Hotpants and Forbidden City — Portrait of an Empress, which won him an M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Award in 2003. He will reprise this role in the 2017 run of Forbidden City. Another feather in his cap: art director/costume designer for several National Day Parades, including the Jubilee celebration in 2015.

“I remember, as a kid, I loved making things with my hands,” says Yang, whose Peranakan shophouse is filled with paintings and sculptures he created this past year. “I recently realised that I’ve been on the go for 30 years and have not taken time off to reconnect with myself, my family or friends. I also realised I wanted to paint, to write, and daydream… so I took time off to be a flaneur.”

These days, he devotes time to painting, triggered in part by a David Hockney exhibition he attended in London two years ago. At 80, the English artist painted his latest works on the iPad. “When you see these digital paintings, you think… maybe you’re never too old to do anything you want to do!”

This inspired him to pick up a brush and start painting — and boldly — on large canvases. “I have no formal training in art, so what I do is to incorporate some of what I know of fashion into art — like creating textures or jacquard (different weaves) through the use of matt and gloss. I also use embroidery and stitching in my painting. It’s like how the Chinese create ‘landscape paintings’ that on closer look, are fully-embroidered.”

Yang admits painting is much more than a hobby now. “I see it as creative therapy, a conversation I’m having with myself or depicting a conversation I’ve had with someone,” he reflects, adding that art is just one of several items on his bucket list he’s ticking off. “It helps me unwind and meditate. But I hope to take it further, to a less self-indulgent level, and empower others through art therapy.”

Forbidden City — Portrait of an Empress opens at Esplanade Theatre 8 August.

SERAPHIM CHEONG

Profession Civil servant
Passion Violin

It’s become a familiar sight for colleagues and office security personnel: Seraphim Cheong lugging her violin case to work every Friday. It’s a day she looks forward to, especially after a tough week. She is a civil servant handling communications; but outside of work, she’s a principal for second violins with the Chamber Orchestra, a community orchestra founded in 2016. They rehearse every Friday night at Thomson Community Club.

“I started learning the piano and violin when I was four, and considered pursuing music seriously. But when you’re born in the late 1970s, the Singapore arts scene was very different. It was my school principal who discouraged me from pursuing the arts,” shares Cheong, who holds a Grade 8 certificate in violin and a diploma in piano.

She embarked on a career in communications after graduating in media studies from Murdoch University, Australia. Music was left on the back burner as focus shifted to her career and family. “While I still played for church, it wasn’t classical music — that’s a whole different level of competency. I say I took a ‘hiatus’ because during those years, I wasn’t actively pursuing music.”

It was only in 2014 that she started playing the violin seriously again, joining the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra and restarting weekly lessons. It was her violin teacher who encouraged her to audition for the Chamber Orchestra, which he co-founded and is music director of. “Playing music with others is very different. In a community orchestra, I have friends who range in age from 20s to 70s! It’s changed my perspective — that music is not a thing I do alone.”

But juggling her two passions has been challenging. Just before starting her new job last November, she was informed that she would have a business trip in early December. “My heart instantly sank because my maiden concert with the orchestra was on the first Saturday of December. For a split second, I thought that maybe I should give up my job!”

While there are times she questions her decision, she says, “The minute I get there, open up my violin case, put on my shoulder rest, and apply the rosin on the bow, I know… this is all good! Music will always be in my blood; I don’t think I’ll ever flush it out. It has brought me sanity and balance, and taught me that there is more to life.”

Unfinished by the Chamber Orchestra plays at the Lee Foundation Theatre, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, on 6 August.

Credit: Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra
Credit: Harmonic Aficionados Society

MATHANA SUBHAS BALAN

Credit: Mathana Subhas Balan

Profession Educational therapist
Passion Dance

For Mathana Balan, the thrill of dance started in her school days, where she would get an adrenaline rush performing on stage for events such as Teachers’ Day and Deepavali concerts. Over the years, beyond school and work, she actively sought avenues to continue dancing, taking part in dance competitions with her friends and being part of the well-known Indian dance group Sangeshtraz. With the latter, she had the opportunity to perform for Mediacorp’s Vasantham shows, and was exposed to a variety of dance forms such as salsa, jazz and contemporary.

In 2015, she decided to focus on something she’d always been interested in: Indian classical dance. She is now a student at the Bharathaanjali dance school, and appreciates how learning the Bharatanatyam repertoire has humbled her as a dancer.

“Considering my age, this form of dance is harder to master as my flexibility and endurance have decreased over time. But this has also made me realise how practice and perseverance do bring about results, and gradually, I’m getting fitter and more confident,” she says.

At the same time, Balan is currently pursuing a Master of Education (Special Education) at the National Institute of Education while working as an educational therapist at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore.

“Juggling dance with work and studies does take a toll on me. I do get exhausted, but I also love everything that I am doing. This pushes me to manage my time better,” she says.

“If I gave up dance, life would be so mundane. But then again, I see teaching as an ideal career. Perhaps one day, I can be a professional dance teacher,” she muses. “Everyone has that something that makes them come alive. If you know what that is, don’t hold back. When you pursue what you love, life becomes more meaningful.”

ONG XIBIN

Profession Business development manager
Passion Web comics

You could say Ong Xibin lives and breathes his work: he’s a manager in the family business — Line Fast, offering a range of logistics services — which has fed and clothed him since childhood. You might also think this work/life dynamics would leave Ong with no time for a hobby. But it’s precisely the need for interaction with others from outside his all-consuming social sphere that spurred him on to become a viral web-comic artist. “Drawing comics is my way of reaching out to other people. It’s a rare platform for me to share my opinions and thoughts, and sometimes vent about slices of my life, in a non-confrontational way. I think if I wasn’t able to draw my comics, I’d be quite miserable.”

Miserable is the opposite of how Ong’s readers at See Bang, his comics page, generally feel — his incisive comics have been deemed so amusing and relatable that a few have clocked hundreds of thousands of shares worldwide. “I’ve always drawn… when I was younger and my parents were busier with work, I would spend time copying images from comics belonging to my manga-mad brother,” shares Ong.

However, the flipside of everyone being able to access your work is that protecting copyright isn’t easy. “Without a major publisher, it’s harder to make money off web comics. But that’s just as well — I think if I had to draw to keep alive, I would hate it. As it is, I love stealing time to put a strip together; I have a little memo in my phone of one-liner notes which I thumbnail and structure into draft panels before editing everything digitally, and doing a proper drawing where the punch line is distinct. You can’t necessarily tell from how simple my comics look, but the longest I’ve spent on one is two whole days.”

Check out Ong’s comics page at www.facebook.com/seebangnow

LEONG CHEE YENG

Credit: The Fullerton Hotel

Profession Chef
Passion Pottery

Chef Leong Chee Yeng loves ceramics. In fact, he has been pottering about with them for 30 years.

In between shifts at Jade Restaurant, The Fullerton Hotel, where he heads the kitchen as Chinese executive chef, Leong often makes his way to the ceramic studio at Kampong Glam Community Centre to get his sculpting fix.

“I love how the clay gives me the flexibility to explore different textures, and allows me to express my appreciation for traditional Chinese culture. At the same time, ceramics give a sense of permanence which I don’t really get with my creations as a chef,” he says.

His interest in ceramics was sparked after he decided to make his own plates while preparing for a culinary competition in the 1990s. He picked up the basics from his older brother, who is a professional ceramics artist, and became hooked. From there, he started attending pottery courses, checking out antique ceramics at Tanglin Shopping Centre, and making friends with other ceramic artists.

“Even though my whole family is artistically inclined, it never occurred to me to go to art school and do art full-time like my brother. I didn’t do much studying when I was younger and I was already working in the kitchen by the time I was 15,” Leong recalls.

Nevertheless, it is evident his artistic expressiveness spills over to his workplace. At Jade Restaurant, his ornate vases and sculptures are displayed in the VIP rooms. A bird sculpture he created served as inspiration for a repeated bird motif featured on the restaurant’s bespoke wallpaper. In fact, in 2015, he held his first solo exhibition Ceramics Indulgence at the restaurant, featuring over 40 pieces of his work. Around 70 per cent of his nature-inspired sculptures were sold and proceeds went to the Autism Resource Centre.

The award-winning Leong’s passion for sculpting has also helped him stand out in culinary competitions, where he would create one-of-a-kind, intricate gelatine sculptures to decorate his dishes. “The judges couldn’t believe they were not made out of sugar and kept touching them in disbelief,” he says with a laugh.

“I am really fortunate that The Fullerton Hotel management has been really supportive of my artistic endeavours. It is rare to have a chef who can bring in other interests to his work,” he says.

DASA DHARAMAHSENA

Credit: The Kyt Studio

Profession Law student
Passion Stand-up comedy

“I don’t think I find a lot of things funny about law school,” says Dasa Dharamahsena about balancing law-student life with comedy. “But both law and comedy are often about logical observations. They’re also clear cut — you win or lose a case, and people either laugh at your jokes…or they don’t.”

Dharamahsena currently reads law in New Zealand, while featuring on Singapore radio station Kiss92FM to which he calls in daily to offer humorous life observations on the Dasa From Bras Basah segment. Whenever he gets back into town, he also pops up on the Love Gurus segment, and performs live stand-up… all for token telephone/transportation fees.

“It all started when I helped at an event and chatted with deejay John Klass, who said my perspectives on life are funny. He introduced me to Loretta Lopez, who was doing marketing for a bar with good food but whose customers were only coming for drinks. She asked if I’d be willing to do jokes for 10 to 15 minutes with some other comedians as free dinner entertainment, in exchange for a transport fee. I said yes. I felt if I didn’t succeed, at least I wasn’t officially getting paid. But more and more people turned up, and somehow, I made them laugh.

“I realised this isn’t something everyone can do. Not everybody can write their own comedy script, direct themselves, and when performing, expect laughter from the audience at least every minute. My most memorable stand-up experience was with this very angry looking lady, who didn’t even acknowledge my ‘hello’. Throughout the performance, she sat in front of me and even gave me a death stare when I asked to put my drink on her table. After the performance, she asked to speak to me and I thought I was going to be torn apart. But she said, ‘I had a very bad day, but you made me smile.’

“I realised, that’s what comedy is about, bringing joy to people. I definitely want to pursue this full-time once I graduate. It’s a big leap of faith, but it’s one I’m willing to take.”

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