Four faces of artwork
Part of Silver Arts which celebrates seniors and the arts in September, seniors from a senior activity centre got to share their views and stories on a canvas.
Last month as part of Silver Arts organised by the National Arts Council (NAC), there was a community arts project called Four Faces produced by Jean Loo and Huiwen Yang from Logue. Using a cardboard as a canvas, the installation was “a personal, yet informal, memoir of the ordinary man”.
Eight seniors from SilverACE Senior Activity Centre in Bukit Merah worked together with young artists and volunteers over three weeks to create four personal art pieces that interpret the seasons in their lives. They were free to explore and reflect on their worldviews through conversations shared and stories manifested creatively on a canvas. As each team built rapport over conversations, it was hoped that the intergenerational bonding would inspire the participants to renew what they value in life.
Shared a senior participant, Chan Poh Kow, 75, “This is my first time trying out painting. I wouldn’t say I’m good at it but I’m very happy to be able to pick up a new skill and spend my time fruitfully. Since I fell down in an accident, I spend almost all of my time at home watching TV every day. I’m glad for the chance to get out and do something different.”
Added, arts facilitator, Estella Ng, 24, “The experience was very meaningful and two-way as there was mutual learning involved. Art can be quite exclusive but through this programme I was able to help make art more accessible and use my talent to help steer the project. For the seniors it was a process of discovery as they uncover their inner artistic talents within themselves with every lesson.”
Another volunteer also had all praises for the project. Lau Zhen Min, 19, a student, said: “It isn’t that easy to befriend the seniors but this project creatively provided a platform for interaction. I felt I was able to close the generation gap with the seniors. Talking to them and listening to their stories really helps me broaden my horizon and see more in the world.”
Seniors & their artwork
Here are four of the seniors who took part in the project and the artwork and stories gathered by the artists and volunteers:
“Uncle Andrew is a man of intellect, stoic with great character. On the surface he is quiet and reserved, but there are so many fascinating quirks to him. He likes to busy himself with the day’s activities, often commuting to different parts of the island for his solo adventures. Andrew is certainly a professional at self-entertaining. He isn’t much of a talker but when he does he sheds deep insight, and definitely feels more than he lets on. In this art collaboration we decided to spotlight some of his favourite activities that showcase his personality and beautiful handwriting.” – Estella Ng, 24, arts facilitator
Andrew reads on a daily basis. On top of his staple newspapers he makes it a point to borrow fictional books at the Bedok library. A devout Catholic, he reads the bible regularly and engages in Biblical fiction.
Andrew shares he walks and jogs in his neatly pressed white shirts and long pants, because he finds it too much of a hassle to change out. He’s been frequenting the Botanic Gardens for years and likes it because of the memories and walking trails.
Andrew goes for a swim after his weekly library visits. He likes the feeling of being free in the pool. He candidly shared that he doesn’t swim in any particular way but a mix of styles – “freestyle” swimming.
Fishing will always have a special place in his heart because it takes him back to his childhood days. He says his happiest memories were when he was a kid, playing in his Surin Avenue kampong. The place is entirely transformed now. But during his monthly fishing sessions he gets transported right back in time.
“Aunty Soo Mui has an outgoing personality and wears a huge smile. During our first meeting, she opened up quickly and it felt just like family. Happygolucky and free-spirited, Aunty Soo Mui is always game to try new things. Her carefree nature led to her trying out more than 30 jobs in her younger days. Her fondest memories are of her food escapades with colleagues after work when she was in her 20s and weekend adventures with her nieces and nephews as they were growing up. She also loves food and is always game to try new cuisines.” – Jing Ng, 28, arts facilitator
A fond childhood memory of Aunty Soo Mui’s is her favourite sparkly hairband and vivid childhood memory of swallowing an insect tossed into her mouth by her elder brother.
Reminiscing of younger carefree days of working at a mooncake shop.
Aunty Soo Mui recalls the tiring and challenging times when she used to run her own coffee stall. It was hard work with monetary rewards, but she was left with no time or energy to enjoy life.
Still young at heart, Aunty Soo Mui hopes to stay healthy and active in her senior years.
Chan Poh Kow, 75
“The best times of Mr Chan’s life were spent out at sea when he worked as a seafarer, frequently travelling to faraway lands such as Tanzania in East Africa. Out at sea, the ever-changing seascape showed him the impermanence of life and gave him a certain freedom as he did not have to worry about meals or having a roof over his head. He spent his time playing the harmonica and bonded with fellow sailors over Chinese dominoes and drinking. These experiences are distilled into his philosophies in his artwork.” – Huiwen Yang, 31, arts facilitator
One’s ability is limited, and sometimes we do need that little dose of luck to help us along. This ultimate winning combination of tien gow, a game of Chinese dominoes, symbolises that stroke of luck and makes him a very happy man.
Mr Chan’s needs are very simple, which is to have two meals a day and a roof over his head.
Life is like the irony of a goblet of wine – it holds a bitter taste yet people drink it to forget their sorrows.
This is Mr Chan’s favourite piece as it encapsulates his philosophy and the most memorable period of his life. The colour of the sea is never the same shade every day, he observes, but what’s certain is that a rainbow would always appear in the horizon after every storm.
“Mdm Yek has certainly led a humble but colourful life. Born as the first daughter to a Chinese immigrant, she recalls having to grow up quickly under the hardships of the Japanese Occupation, her father’s sudden passing and undertaking the role of sole breadwinner in her family. Although a great number of years were spent working very hard, she never laments shouldering this responsibility.
Under her small petite frame lies the strength of her love for her father, filial piety and resilience that motivated her to see her younger brothers grow up with food on the table and have a good education. Today, she enjoys each day she has – be it a simple meal, sewing, seeing old friends and walking around a flourishing Singapore that has come a long way since the 1920s.” – Huiwen Yang, 31, arts facilitator
Mdm Yek spent her childhood years in Chinatown and remembers the streets of her neighbourhood this way. She grabs rolls of crepe paper and began laying them out on the table. In the middle is Hong Lim Park, where she brought her younger brothers down to watch and play football. A small Chinese button symbolises the humble beginnings she had in a shophouse room along North Canal Road.
Mdm Yek has never painted or picked up a brush in her life. But with broad and firm strokes, she layered white upon white until the entire board was filled. In Chinese culture, white is symbolic in death and mourning. I asked her what were her last words to her father before he passed away when she was 23. She said in Chinese: “Father, don’t worry, I will take over the responsibilities.”
For the next 56 years of her life, Mdm Yek worked very, very hard. When her father passed on, she took on the role of the sole breadwinner to support her mothers and two younger brothers, working as a dentist’s assistant for S$70 a month. Because that was not sufficient to feed her family, she would come home from her day job and continue sewing maids’ uniforms for extra money late into the night with the sewing machine her late father had bought for her. “Somehow,” she wondered out loud, “I think he knew I could use this to feed us.”
Her life was split in half, a cycle of holding two jobs, one in the day, one in the night. “At the dentist’s, sometimes I would be so tired that I would close one eye and keep the other open, just so that I could rest for a bit.”
After retiring in 2003, Mdm Yek moved into a single apartment in Bukit Merah. She does not need to work anymore as she receives a monthly government allowance. “I wake up, exercise while I brush my teeth, watch TV, walk to the market to buy some ingredients to cook my next meal. I am happy, very happy.”
Mdm Yek has always been good with fabric and sewing, and proudly brought a flower-shaped coaster made out of folded pieces of different fabrics. “People give me fabric that they have left and I thought of a way to sew them into something useful again.” She loves flowers and has a green thumb caring for her potted plant garden. With all the hardships in her life behind her, she has finally come to savour the joy life brings again.
Other seniors’ stories:
“Uncle Leong is a very positive man, who is young at heart and has a curious and playful streak in him. He talks about his childhood days fondly and courtship days bashfully. The signatures on the art pieces were his idea too because he ‘wanted to be like an artist’. Despite taking on many jobs, he took it well in his stride. He enjoys sharing life lessons, but shies away from speaking up in front of a crowd. His artwork was inspired by the four phases of his life – each piece representing a period of growth and the different preoccupations. From the carefree days of childhood games and love blossoming in his teens to the hard work that goes into making ends meet and enjoying a simple meal with his wife, these are what makes life flavourful.”
“Mdm Thum is a woman of tenacity who survived the Japanese Occupation and been through a number of events in her life. She lives life with discipline and always expects more from herself than of others. The daughter of a successful doctor in China, everything changed with the war, and she found herself on a large vessel of hopeful immigrants making their way to Singapore. Not knowing anyone here, she started working on odd jobs, including cleaning vessels, before becoming a seamstress. Mdm Thum was illiterate but she managed to bring up her son singlehandedly and faced adversities with a determined, brave front. Her series of artwork is a result of our conversations and traced her life in a way as simply as she had led it.”
“Aunty Dulcie is a breakfast buffet chef at a hotel in Orchard. She has been working in the food and beverage sector for her entire career. Her two daughters and son are all grown up now and she lives a happy, contented life doing the things she loves.”
“Mr Yong is a charming man. The moment I sat down with him, he cracked a joke. It took no time for us to warm up to each other. Despite his age, he was very open to doing art and when I suggested that we do photography instead of using conventional art mediums, he jumped at the opportunity. A humorous man who is young at heart, he still dreams of pursuing his wanderlust despite his lack of mobility.”
“Working with the seniors from SilverACE has been a rewarding experience, particularly when I see their eyes light up when they walk into the room. Nobody was ever late – most were always early and always eager to start the class.
I think the sessions have helped them celebrate their personal life stories and philosophies, no matter how mundane they might seem. They enjoyed working together with younger artists on a common goal and driving the project artistically and creatively. More importantly, I think the seniors enjoyed the friendships and conversations shared during our sessions.
Some interesting stories include 92-year-old Yek Wai Lian or Yek Popo as we call her, who shouldered the responsibility of bringing up her family through various odd jobs. She is single and lives alone, but lives a fulfilling life enjoying her hobbies like patchwork and sewing. There’s also Mr Chan Poh Kow who was a seafarer in his younger days, sailing out to Tanzania and witnessing rainbows across the skies. His mobility has since been affected after a fall but he recalls those days with pride and wonder.
As Four Faces is our second time working as part of Silver Arts, we decided to rope in a group of young artists and designers to work with our seniors. I’m very grateful that Silver Arts focuses on seniors because I think we cannot underestimate the potential of community art in empowering seniors as artists. Both the youths and seniors enjoyed themselves immensely simply because there was space and purpose to the project. Not only does it take them away from dull routines like the TV, the endless possibilities of art gives them space to imagine and celebrate their life now.
Mr Chan, for example, was quite affected by his fall and mentioned that “he’s quite useless” now, but when he picked up the paintbrush, as with some of the seniors who painted or crafted so intensely for the first time in their lives, he did so with extreme concentration and precision. The energy and focus in the air was nothing short of inspiring.”