Having been trained by the late Liu Kang, the legendary Chinese painter; and by the late Lim Nang Seng, who had sculpted Singapore’s very famous Merlion statue, it is no wonder that Mr Koh Hong Yiang’s near 50-year career as an artist glitters with achievements.
The first thing that strikes you about Mr Koh is his overwhelming generosity. Though 67, age does not seem to be a problem for the spritely gentleman as he engages in a lively presentation of his artworks, housed in his bedroom.
His passion and love for his art pieces (some date 40 years) also shine through his vivid recollections of places he’s been and inspirations he’s had when sculpting or painting. The lifelike portraits and intricate forms of his sculptures carved out of cement are fascinating; the range of his works span wall-sized paintings to tiny greeting cards.
His sculptures bear limbs that extend to express emotion — like love, or nurturing. Working with cement, Mr Koh takes close to a month to complete an average meter-tall sculpture, from concept to the finished piece.
Born to Chinese immigrants who were artists themselves, Mr Koh had a natural born gift for painting. It was also during his childhood that he began to experiment with clay to make vases, and discovered his love for sculpting.
The pursuit of his dreams was not an easy journey for Mr Koh. With 10 brothers and sisters, his school fees at NAFA proved to be a constant source of worry. Instead of being discouraged, Mr Koh met these challenges head on, stopping school at times and taking on odd-jobs to pay for his lessons and art materials. It was those days of hardship and toil that fanned the flames of Mr Koh’s passion for art, and made him determined to make it as an artist.
His hard work and dedication paid off, as he came under the pupilage of Liu Kang upon graduating from NAFA with flying colours. What followed was a host of awards and achievements that began coming his way. For a year, Mr Koh was invited to a Canadian arts school to teach and he also fulfilled a life-long dream when he set up his very own Arts Studio which presided in Tanglin Park in the early 1960s.
Today, Mr Koh still works on his sculptures and paintings but spends most of his retirement enjoying time spent with his three daughters and grandchildren. Occasionally, Mr Koh makes greeting cards for festive seasons, free-of-charge, for students in the schools near his flat in Chinatown. Last Chinese New Year, he even created a greeting card for all the members of City Harvest Chinese Church, the church he attends faithfully every Sunday. This writer benefited from Mr Koh’s hospitality as he tried to give him as many little pieces of artwork as he could during the course of the interview.
|PHOTOS: Lee May Chuen|
Mr Koh is living proof that hard work and determination gets you ahead in life. It was not easy being a full-time artist while having a family to support; taking up part-time jobs just to make ends meet. But in the words of Mr Koh, “Taking one step, making one footprint at a time, is how to proceed on the pathway to success.”