May 25, 2009
the monday interview with Thomas Yeo
Painting for the present
At his age, there is no point thinking about the future, says the artist, who pours all into his craft
By adeline chia
At an age when most people turn reflective and think of what might have been, 73-year-old artist Thomas Yeo takes the zen approach: He believes in now.
For the established painter and Cultural Medallion winner, it is the present that counts.
Yeo, who has been married for more than 30 years and has no children, does not think about his legacy or whom his inheritance will go to.
'What will happen in the next three or four years, I don't know. It's presumptuous to even think about it,' he says.
'For people past the age of 70, anything can happen. They can just drop off and go. I've seen many friends do that without saying goodbye. That's why I don't think about tomorrow.'
His self-confessed 'now' philosophy has driven him to paint continuously for more than 50 years.
But his routine is no longer at the pace of the 14-hour days during the busy period of his youth, when he had concurrent exhibitions in Singapore and Australia. Now, he works only after lunch in his room at the Telok Kurau Studios, and till 5pm.
But he can afford to take it slow now. In Singapore's short art history, he is one of the most prominent of the secondgeneration artists who went overseas to tap new approaches such as expressionism and abstraction.
His work is collected by large corporations such as banks and hotels. They are also bought and sold on the auction circuit. The works, which can be expressive and abstract pieces or intricately rendered landscapes, fetch anything from a few thousand dollars to $85,000.
His 41st solo exhibition is on at the Artfolio Gallery till Wednesday. The show has two strands: stunning acrylic-oncanvas works with violent washes of colour and the more intricate gouache-on- rice paper pieces with meticulously rendered landscapes.
The second method is favoured by collectors, but it is clear what the artist prefers. The walls of his 2,000-sq-ft condominium in Devonshire Road are covered with his own abstract works.
The centrepiece in his living room is a 1.6m-by-2m abstract landscape. Fierce blocks of colour break up the turquoise background, which practically glows.
Like the vibrant colours in his work, Yeo is an animated conversationalist. He veers freely into anecdotes and gesticulates wildly with his hands to make a point.
His body is compact and powerful, honed by weekly sessions at the gym. His mind is lively and delights in humour.
During the photo shoot, he asks not to have his feet photographed, saying that it makes the picture look too casual. He says: 'This is a serious thing, right?'
'Art is very serious, you know,' he adds, before bursting into laughter, something that happens often in the interview.
Following his dream
You ask how he knew that he would become a painter. He says: 'It's very simple. I knew I'd be very happy. It's my hobby as well as my occupation. I don't think I was good at anything else, either.'
Born the seventh of 12 children to an optician father and housewife mother, he lived in a shophouse in North Bridge Road where his father ran his business.
One of his five brothers is former Minister of Transport Yeo Cheow Tong, who is 10 years younger than he.
The children shared four bedrooms and three maids cleaned, cooked and ran the household.
The young Yeo spent his mornings in Tao Nan School, a Chinese school, and his afternoons at the Anglo-Chinese Afternoon School, where he was taught in English. His two favourite subjects were art and sport.
At night, he drew hundreds of sketches of Cheow Tong, with whom he shared a room. 'I could almost memorise him without looking,' he says.
He enrolled in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1958, the only art school here at that time. His parents accepted his decision but said he would be on his own financially.
There, he trained under Singapore's pioneer painters Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Georgette Chen. On weekends, he went with a group of painters, including famous watercolourist Lim Cheng Hoe, to paint the Singapore River.
In 1960, he held his first solo exhibition at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) to raise money to study at London's famous Chelsea School Of Art, as it was then known.
It was a sold-out show. He cannot remember how much he raised, except that it was enough to last him 11/2 years in England.
He then took a 21-day boat ride to Genoa and travelled through Italy, sketching its sights. He arrived at school two weeks past the enrolment date.
And he got a culture shock in class. Used to art teachers guiding him step- by-step back in Singapore, the laissez- faire attitude of his English lecturers left him at sea.
He says: 'We were told to 'get on with it'. I never got to see the teacher for weeks on end.
'I thought it was the wrong place to be because nobody taught you anything.'
He left a year later to explore other options and moved to Hammersmith College of Art and Architecture, where he started working with materials such as fibreglass, stained glass and mosaics.
When the money from his first exhibition ran out, he got a grant from the Lee Foundation to cover his tuition fees and did odd jobs.
He graduated three years later with a diploma and started to teach art part- time at a college in London's Islington Green. That gave him a good salary that allowed him to paint in a studio in Nottinghill Gate.
He started showing his work to galleries but it was difficult to get his foot in. He says: 'The top galleries employ girls to see artists, but they know nothing about art. They are there to get rid of artists. They say, 'Don't ring us, we'll ring you'.'
But they never did. After getting more doors shut in his face, he began to understand the intricate social dance in the art world. He started making friends with artists who introduced him to their galleries without his asking.
The British High Commissioner in Singapore at the time, who had moved back to London, also introduced Yeo to gallery contacts.
But eight years in London eventually took its toll: It was a lonely time.
He says, growing pensive: 'I never for a moment wanted to stay in Europe. I wasn't comfortable there. I was comfortable in Singapore, with all that was good and bad here. My friends and family are here.'
So in 1968, he threw all his savings into buying a plane ticket back and shipping his paintings home.
Penniless, he squatted in a garage in Monk's Hill Road. For a year, he painted and slept there. 'And dreamed there,' he adds with a wide smile.
Business picked up. He started making a name for himself exhibiting in halls in the SCCCI and the National Library, as there were few commercial galleries in the 1960s and 1970s.
Through the help of a Singaporean gallery owner in Melbourne, he started to have shows in Australia as well.
He became comfortable enough to move to a flat in Newton, where he continued to work.
At the age of 38, in 1974, he met his soft-spoken Australian wife, Margaret, at a party in Singapore. She was 21 and on holiday here.
She returned home to Melbourne but they wrote each other long letters. She came back to Singapore less than a year later and the two married.
A Singapore permanent resident, Margaret handles Yeo's correspondence. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
He grows shy when he speaks of her. He says simply: 'We just clicked.'
On the age difference, he says: 'I don't think it will ever be an issue if people can get along.'
The couple have no children because 'my work keeps me sufficiently busy. I'm not sure I can handle a family'.
Does he have any regrets?
He replies: 'How can you miss what you never had?'
In 1984, he was awarded the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to Singapore art.
In the 1990s, he started a short career in publishing, putting out six books on Singapore and South-east Asian art.
He also served as an adviser for the now-defunct Shell Discovery Exhibition's advisory committee, which promotes emerging local artists, and for the Philip Morris Asean Art Awards.
But eventually, he stopped juggling his many hats and concentrated on his first love: painting.
Now you can catch him painting on the floor in his studio in Telok Kurau, attacking the canvas from all angles.
He keeps to himself. 'You can knock on the door but I won't answer,' he says.
Some younger artists have asked why such an established artist is taking up the heavily subsidised studio space in Telok Kurau Studios.
He replies matter-of-factly: 'The Cultural Medallion winners and the older artists have demonstrated to the National Arts Council that they have contributed to society and they are here to stay.
'How many artists work very hard for three months and disappear for three years?
'You have to earn your place here. Otherwise, every Tom, Dick and Harry who carries a brush can call himself an artist.'
He admits that he feels distanced from contemporary disciplines such as video and installation art. He says: 'The problem today is that if you can't paint, you do abstract art. Or if you can't paint, you do installation art.'
He relates an anecdote about visiting an exhibition in Australia. A security guard told him that he had been stepping on an exhibit: a rope on the floor.
He says: 'To each his own, I say. I'm an old-fashioned painter. Without apology.'
You ask when he will hang up the paintbrush. He relates yet another story, this time about Picasso, who allegedly stared at his last painting at age 91 and told his wife that he could not think any more. Two hours later, Picasso was dead.
Yeo says: 'To paint until you cannot think. That seems like a good way to go.'
My life so far
'Before we stopped in Genoa, we stopped in Egypt. You had to pay to join the pyramid tour and I did. My friend said, 'I will go to Egypt on the way back'. I told him he would never go back because I don't believe in the future. What you want to do, it must be now. And until today, he has never been to Egypt'
Yeo, on his 'now' philosophy, when he took a 21-day boat ride to Europe in 1960
'I told the principal at Chelsea School Of Art I wanted to be an artist. He burst out laughing. He said, 'Do you know what you are talking about? Look at Jimmy, the guy who pushes the clay into the pottery class. He was a graduate here and he wanted to be an artist. What did he end up doing? Pushing clay'.'
On the poor prospects of being a full-time artist
'London is a place where people just stop over. You can't have friends in London. It's hello and goodbye'
On being lonely in London
'He is a man of two words: yes and no. He's not a man to talk. You've got to prod him to talk. He's one of those people who would hold your hand and show you, this is how you mix this colour. He would show you rather than talk to you about it. As a result, I'm like that. I just get on with it'
On his art teacher and famous Singapore pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng