Carol Lee Mei Kuen (Lee)
Alice Choi Wing Sze (Choi)
Carl Cheng Chi Ming (Cheng)
Cheng: When did your desire begin to study fine art?
Lee: I liked to sketch when I was a kid. You know how girls like to sketch models on paper and design fashion. It’s very typical and it’s cheap. A sheet of paper is all you need. I still enjoyed art when I was in secondary school, although there was no art subject at school after Form 2. Fortunately, there was an art club at school where I could go and have some fun after school. I took up Art, sat for the HKCEE as a private candidate, and got a ‘B’. Not bad I suppose.
Cheng: You got the best result among the three of us.
Lee: I applied at Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute to study design. That was as close to fine art as I could get. I imagined that I possessed an overwhelming artistic talent, so I used an alternative technique when I was told to draw a coin: I was supposed to sketch it, but I chose to crumple up the paper and scratch the coin on top of it. The result? I was not admitted into the programme. Those were the days when a headstrong desire to study fine art was not enough to get you in.
Then I happened to stumble across early childhood education and worked in that field for nine years after finishing my studies. But I loved fine art so much that I took up Chinese painting under the tutelage of Master 徐元佳. Other than my art teacher who was very nice to me during secondary school, I believe Master徐was the one who truly enlightened me. He’s a very serious Chinese painting teacher with many distinguished protégés.
Cheng: Did he set out to take on talented students?
Lee: I believe so. Passing on the tradition is very crucial in Chinese painting. Besides using the technique of copying, he would take us out to do outdoor sketches, be it squatting down to sketch rocks at a waterfall in Tsuen Wan or looking up to draw a large banyan tree.
Though I was learning painting while simultaneously studying at school and working, I still saw art as nothing more than a hobby. Then I met a group of street painters a few years later – Au Yeung Nai Chim and some others. At the time I had reached an impasse with my work in early childhood education. As I was also getting married, I decided to quit my job and devoted more time to street scenery. My teacher once asked me whether painting was a mere hobby or if I would like to be an artist. The question lingered in my mind. If I were to become an artist, how should I go about it? Every Tuesday and Thursday I met with this group of street painters and spent an entire day sketching and painting. Then we would host exhibitions like Hong Kong Depicted by Hong Kong Painters. That felt like a little step into the world of art.
Cheng: When was this?
Lee: It was around 1990 to 1995. But I began studying Chinese painting in 1983.
Cheng: So you had been painting for seven or eight years by then.
Lee: Correct. To be honest, it takes skill to paint street scenery with Chinese hairbrushes. It was quite a challenge to do it on the spot. To do so without any rudimentary skills would be impossible. Soon after, I gave birth to my child and put all artistic matters on hold. Three years later, I was struggling a bit, feeling as though I’d lost my own identity. It was a funny feeling, lthat everything I did was not for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I really loved my child and enjoyed taking care of him. Yet there was this itch which I believe exists in all artists. So I went to study art. By then I was pretty sure that I was going to develop along this path. The only difference this time was the motivation; that is, I wanted to develop my Chinese painting through other media.
Cheng: As for my opportunity… the thought of taking the Master of Fine Art programme at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Techology had never occurred to me. It felt too out of reach, as actual accomplishments in the artistic world are needed to even apply for the programme. But then I went to a seminar with Alice – who was enrolled in the BFA programme back in 2005 – and found out that Chris Chan Kam Shing and others were also enrolled in both programmes. It dawned on me that perhaps it was not as outrageous an idea as I believed. So I enrolled. Although I had been doing creative work, I still didn’t know for certain how to do it professionally. That’s why I thought I’d try to enroll, because I really wanted to study it.
Lee: The words ‘for certain’ are very meaningful. For students in our age group, we tend not to choose something we aren’t certain about. We want certainty about things – not so much knowing exactly what will happen, but at least knowing for sure that this is something one wants to develop further.
Cheng: I am certain that I want to execute art not only at amateur level but at a high standard. I am pursuing something on a slightly higher plane; it’s somewhat like writing an academic thesis.
Choi: As for me, this was a childhood dream with many hurdles along the way, because I wasn’t very good at drawing or painting. Even with the help of teachers, there were things that just didn’t make sense to me. Among the three of us, my HKCEE result was the worst: a ‘D’ grade for Art. It was a big shock because I got distinctions or merits for all other subjects. Art became the blot on my report card, which seemed to show that fine art was just not my forte, even though I worked really hard to study painting. When I was in Form 6, my wish was to get into the Department of Fine Art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. During the orientation day, I was still hoping to get into New Asia College – I had actually attended the first-ever Art Camp hosted by the Hong Kong Arts Centre when I was in Form 5. I was the youngest at the camp.
Lee: You took it seriously.
Choi: Unfortunately the HKCEE result seemed to prove that I was not cut out for it, that art was not my path to tread. It is fine as a hobby, but not as a profession, because I felt inadequate. Thus I studied other subjects when I was at the Chinese University. Then I started working in administration. This line of work paid well, but it was very mundane, so I started learning photography and painting.
Art was purely a hobby until I came across the Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain course that he was teaching. I’ve already read about it in Form 1 from Readers Digest and have even tried to use it. Yet I have never seriously read any books on drawing on the right side of the brain… then we got married and he read that book…
Cheng: In 2003.
Choi: He was contemplating going to the States to study it and to negotiate a license to teach the course. I followed him and we studied drawing on the right side of the brain together. This course was critical because it helped me overcome a psychological barrier I had had for more than a decade. It helped me believe that I could paint. It helped me understand my problems. This experience, I believe, is one that many truly talented artists do not have.
Cheng: The conflict between the left and right sides of the brain.
Choi: Indeed, like perspective and other problems. To some extent, this course opened a window for me. With other courses I have taken here and there in my free time, I have accumulated some works of my own. I took the courage to compile them into a portfolio and applied to RMIT, and I was accepted! It felt like I was finally fulfilling a childhood dream. I never thought about actually developing professionally along this path.
As a result, I was very focused on exploring certain techniques since I didn’t arrive with very good skills. Nevertheless, I mastered a few techniques for contemporary art rather quickly. I wasn’t the best, but I discovered that I had certain insights. Because I was able to observe certain things, those three years of study were a joy. During that time I also came to terms with my faith and my relationship with him. I did a lot of thinking and got some answers. When I finished the course, I never thought I would return to my alma mater and teach visual arts. This really led me to believe that there is an invisible hand behind this.
When my parents were young, 2001, Acrylic on board
Lee: You hadn’t taught visual arts before?
Lee: So you started teaching after you finished your Bachelor of Fine Art?
Choi: Exactly. I graduated a tad more than four years ago, and that’s exactly how long I have been teaching. I have let go of some old baggage, like ‘how could I teach others if I do not have superb technique?’ The time I spent studying boosted my confidence that the techniques I learnt are actually quite viable. But more important is understanding what art is… you know, you can’t just teach the technique. Since I didn’t start teaching until I was a little more mature – as well as getting to know other artists like you and all the others I met through him – my strength is not so much in technique but in my resources and knowledge of how to look for things outside the box. When I teach art, I can also draw on my knowledge in psychology and counselling. For instance, some children have problems in their upbringing. When I teach them, it is like life-coaching and trying to help them discover who they are. As a result, their works are very honest. I never coerce them into doing any artwork based on any particular current issue. Rather, I let them decide for themselves, which is far more interesting.
The red line of creativity
Cheng: I felt a little lost when I was studying art. Did you guys experience this?
Lee: Not when I was doing the Master of Fine Art programme, because by that time I had already gone through that when I was doing my Bachelor’s. To me, taking this course was for new knowledge and how to apply it in Chinese art. Therefore, my motivation was fairly clear. However, Western art began to look pretty exciting to me as well in the process. To be honest, I was a little torn between the two. The evolution and passing on of Chinese painting – painting flowers, birds, mountains and water… even using modern techniques to draw locales and cities already seemed like a small breakthrough. But when you are confronted with a real society and real life, those things seem rather remote.
For example, I was thinking about a way to record the growing up of my child. I was hard-pressed to think of a way to do so using Chinese painting as a medium. Then I thought about the nature of these restrictions. Why can’t I just directly and freely express what’s on my mind through this medium? Of course I could choose to paint however I wish, but it would still just be a painting. It was during my study that I began to realise that there are in reality many other choices apart from traditional painting. There are various media for me to express my thoughts directly and thoroughly in my work.
Cheng: Have you abandoned the Chinese medium and switched over to Western ones?
Lee: At that time I really did give up on the Chinese medium. However, after years of training, I still believe it impossible to completely abandon it. Hence, there are still Chinese elements in my work. When I finished my Bachelor of Fine Art and started the Master programme, I realised that my past training would surface in the way I express myself. These so-called ‘Chinese elements’ can then truly break away from the old framework of Chinese painting. This is far more interesting.
Cheng: Chinese elements and the Chinese ‘spirit’ are not restricted to hairbrush and ink.
Lee: Exactly. Perhaps my understanding was rather simplistic back then. Anyway, when this is manifested in other areas, I find it becomes even more amusing and convenient.
The assignments in the early days of my Bachelor of Fine Art programme oscillated between the East and the West. That just simply didn’t work. Forcibly juxtaposing Oriental and Western elements together for the sake of artistic creation is a dead end. Even though I laboured intently, in hindsight I have to concede that this was no way to move forward. We can do it purely as a form, but it is so passé… not to mention this is not what Chinese art is all about.
Choi: For me, I seldom felt lost. I imagined myself as a blank sheet of paper constantly having new things printed on top of it, so I didn’t really have much baggage. Since art was given free rein as a hobby, I did not impose any set target on myself and so I struggled less in my pursuit. It was only at the very beginning when I wasn’t quite sure of what the teacher wanted or of the par set by the university that I briefly felt a little lost. It was pretty much smooth sailing afterwards.
Cheng: My disorientation was rooted in the desire to produce works of a higher calibre in order to affirm my direction, trying to see if I had it in me. Yet I wasn’t confident, not knowing what is considered good by others. I also cared about getting the recognition of others. I could paint, and I thought I was pretty good at it, so I discussed it with my tutors. But they either gave me ambiguous feedback or questioned my plans. I was really quite lost back then. In the very beginning I only had painting in mind because that was the only technical training I’d ever received. During the Master programme course, being required to produce new works in short order was something to grapple with.
Lee: Same here. Even with my background in Chinese painting, I still felt I was very far away from academia. If I had not gone through the experience of doing a Bachelor of Fine Art, I would never have understood or be exposed to so much. Chinese painting is still a very traditional medium. Even back in those days in art school, I felt the two media are from totally different worlds. They cannot be mixed and have their own development and form. Form is not only that of the paintings but all that are involved. How Chinese painters do exhibitions and their ways of organising them are totally different from Western art even today. This why I think studying art was so marvellous, as it allowed me to learn all these new things.
As to whether I struggled or not… it was like someone getting to know art all over again and learning new things. Basically it seemed like I had left Chinese painting behind, yet I would still ponder about how Chinese painting could be modernised. What an outdated idea. But after about a year, I just totally left it behind. Instead of waiting until I reached the dead-end, it was better to let go right then.
Cheng: I had a similar experience of letting go of something rather than hanging onto it, becoming willing to venture out of a comfort zone of familiarity. My experience is… I have to thank my tutor Fran from Australia. It was her who asked me to try. I had a few projects on my mind. One day, I was talking to Stella Tang Ying Chi about not knowing how to carry them out. Ho Siu Kee happened to be listening in and said that I was not making sense. I was contemplating doing some portraits of my parents, but he thought that was not much of a concept.
Lee: How come no-one has ever questioned my work?
Cheng: Perhaps they never dared challenge you? I got it because I was a newbie. That was a rather unsettling experience. Ho Siu Kee asked if I had any other ideas, so I showed him the one about cities. I agreed with the comments he made. Actually the one about family is new, and the one about cities has been brewing for years. Frankly, the idea on cities is something I couldn’t take my mind off, so I continued to create works along this line. Fran, on the other hand, felt that I would just be doing more-or-less the same old things this way. She encouraged me to try something new, namely 3D, something of which I was totally unfamiliar. Initially I just put my toe in and got some wooden sticks as buildings…
Lee: I reckon that’s the difference a Bachelor of Fine Art makes. During those three years, rudimentary knowledge was required before we could create our own work. Having heard what you said, conceptualising one’s work is required at the outset of the Master programme. I just had to try things out during the Bachelor of Fine Art programme. It was not until the Master programme that I seriously created some works through sporadic experimentation and had them compiled into a project. That way there wouldn’t be a gap from 2D to 3D.
Cheng: I had a realisation – obsession breeds appreciation. If I got all the affirmation 10 years earlier, then perhaps I would only repeat the same kind of work and forget about trying other things. Why get into fine art at my age? Because there are things I want to say, to study, to express, things that I am truly interested in. Up to this moment, the reason I still haven’t thought seriously about how to sell my works is because I want to create them simply for their own sake, at least for a while longer. I am no longer in school, but I am still studying these things. I feel like these exhibitions are my theses, and that’s the main influence the Master of Fine Art programme has on me.
Lee: My works are drastically different from yours. Yours have lots of references in the background, but mine are freer and from the heart, inspired by personal life and the subject matter.
Cheng: In the past, doing creative work was more-or-less an attempt to prove how good I was, to win and to be known. Fortunately, my first show-worthy painting was really from the heart. The form was alright. That piece was done purely for its own sake. But there are times when I had to create a piece just for seeking an opportunity for exhibition or competition. Having finished my first piece for the Master programme, I began to understand the meaning of creating a piece with dedication and devotion.
Lee: That’s what art is all about.
Cheng: Exactly. I understood and began to know why I did what I did. I had done works that were sentimental, but I seldom put them on display. Back in 1997 and 1998 I showed pieces that were my diaries, but I did not plan on developing them further. They are too simple, but also very genuine and sentimental. It’s rather strange for a full-grown man to keep putting sentimental things up for display. It dawned on me that doing complicated things was like doing research, and being a rational person, I found this more interesting.
Lee: As a sentimental person, I don’t think I can create a piece that is not based on something I feel deeply about or have experienced. Every artist has a different trigger. When I am at work, sometimes I don’t even know what I am doing. Interestingly enough, I could do anything while I was doing my Bachelor of Fine Art programme. Sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn’t. There were a few instructors who had a big impact on me. Jerry Kwan taught me rudimentary skills, including concepts and the development of Western art. Francis Yu Wai Luen inspired me to think and tore apart my preconceived ideas. During my studies, my work received high praise without any particular criticism. It was he who slapped this on me: ‘passé’. But it was not meant to be derogatory. He taught me to seek a red line, and for this, I was rather moved. A red line. That’s it. No explanation given.
So I began to think, what does this red line represent? It is to find my own language and use it as the building blocks of my work, using this red line as a common thread as an interconnection among all of them. He helped me to gain a new vision. Francis’ art is about wordplay – this is his language. So what about mine? It took me a year to arrive at a breakthrough, which was during my Master of Fine Art programme.
????: When did he say that to you?
Lee: During second year, I think. During the first creative art tutorial, I had already told Ho Siu Kee that I needed to find this ‘red line’. However, creating a piece was painstakingly slow for me. I reviewed the notebook I brought along and found a piece that I had started in 2005 from an idea that I’d already jotted down back in 2000 or 2001. It was like walking through a maze before I finally found it.
Cheng: And that’s solid.
Lee: Sometimes I am asked how to get to that stage. I feel – and I rather like – the fact that the work is a complete series. I am neither good at organising how to begin my work in a logical fashion, nor do I need to find any connection among my works. According to my diary, I was already thinking about the influence time had on me. While I was organising my bookshelves, I came across a set of paintings I did back in 2005. I spent six months working on this set in my workshop, and I stuck them up after I had finished each one of them. After six months, I spotted colour variation in the drawing papers. Originally I was going to do print and the paper was of better quality. However, I was not comfortable with that particular kind of paper – it was too good. Why should I use paper that good? Shouldn’t it be more like a diary? That’s why I chose newspaper-grade stock. After seeing it, Yung Sau Mui encouraged me to use this kind of paper more often. When I saw how the colour of the paper would fade over time, I began to play with it. On top of that, the yellow spots on the paper I found on the bookshelves were the traces left behind by time. Ideas which seemed oceans apart were then linked together. As far as an artist is concerned, if I weren’t contemplating the theme of time, such ordinary things would not have meant much to me.
Cheng: I began to paint cities in 1996, and like you said, there were things I had written down already as I looked back at my works in the 1990s. If that is real and integral to my life, then I could find that ‘red line’. Otherwise, these artistic creations run the risk of not being true to oneself, but are a kowtow to the market and the judgement of others. If it is congruent to the artist himself, he must be able to find it. However, the main issue for me during my Master programme was the change of the creative media. That, to me, was a big leap forward. It was also a big boost for courting contemporary art which led to the exploration of languages.
Lee: I was a step ahead of you because I had already found it during my undergraduate days.
Cheng: So your struggle was earlier and mine was not until I did my Master’s. Fortunately I found the solution within half a year.
Choi: How did the idea of using your family in your work actually come about?
Cheng: I simply wanted to paint those whom I am closest to.
Lee: I have never painted my own son because I am not very good at doing portraits.
Cheng: Fran questioned me too when I was talking to her. She saw my paintings and the photos I took. She asked if I had thought about presenting my ideas straightforwardly through photography. I said I had never thought of it as my creative medium. She told me to try, but I did not continue with it. Frankly, I just wanted to paint. I had painted many things and not only portraits. It was only that I had never painted my parents and family members. I found the idea of using paintings of family as part of an installation art rather intriguing. And that’s how I started. You can say there is no ‘red line’ here. It was just serendipity, and I acted on it.
Choi: I find it rather normal that they had their query. The idea about your family seemed to have come out of nowhere without any context. On the contrary, you had been working along the line of cities, including the one using the wooden sticks. The only difference was going from 2D to 3D. Thus exploring this further during the Master programme was a natural step, and it is something he had been doing. That’s why I think the instructors were right in questioning you and it was really good fortune that you did not insist on your original plan of painting your family. That set of work would have been quite hard to develop, albeit interesting, and the ‘red line’ is nowhere to be found.
Lee: You had only two years to develop either the old or the new idea, and even the one that’s been there would need quite a lot of preparation. Moreover, why not choose to focus on something you have been looking into all along instead of something totally new? That’s why I think they opted to support you continuing your cities series. To be honest, it is impossible to launch a series of artworks without rich content. Portraits, for instance, requires new concepts in many aspects to enrich the content. Instead of simply painting your family, you would need lots of new ideas as substance. You had shown them the ample materials you had on hand, so they felt you should continue with the theme on cities.
Cheng: And that’s why ‘In Cold Blood’ in white wasn’t finished until the end of year one when I had finally decided on what to do, being able to make out what I wanted to do and what I had to do.
Finding direction in art
Cheng: It’s already been a few years since your graduation. Have you looked for something new in your creative work?
Lee: Of course. In fact I have always been looking, even though it has been slow during the last year or so. Other than some minor pieces, I have not accomplished much at all nor do I have any plans to do any major work. I guess I was burnt out doing the newsprint project and I am feeling a little dejected these days. Between 2008 and 2010, I managed to turn everything I had seen into a project. It was a truly productive period, but I became somewhat lax afterward. I am feeling rather zoned out and not being able to focus recently, especially since I have been doing quite a bit of travelling. My creativity seems to have become stagnant, but then I feel this is rather normal. This semiconscious twilight zone is a transition into a new dimension. It has always been so. The jumble in my mind will eventually become another composition.
Cheng: You are more an observant and hands-on type.
Lee: My only virtue is that I am certain about art as my destiny. Be it a success or failure at the end, art will follow me along. This certainty is crucial – because somehow I will produce something instead of nothing at all. To me this path is perpetual, although I might be slow in my production.
Choi: As far as creative work is concerned, I will have something to say when I actually return to doing it. My take though is to integrate art into my teaching – the artistic aspect is being realised through my teaching but not my own creative work. It is about passing on a tradition through transferring my artistic knowledge to another life.
Lee: Would you rather be very famous in the artistic community, or reap no benefits after producing a myriad of masterpieces?
Cheng: I don’t really care about either. What I care about is whether I will have new inspiration after completing a piece. I hate the idea of looking at a piece as the end. If a piece inspires me and provides me the momentum to do the next one, I can find the joy in the creative process. I do of course need to survive in the world of art, to look for funding and to do exhibitions. I am like a scholar hiding inside his lab doing research, only that my field is art.
I am feeling that something in my art is not yet mature even though the content is. I am still looking for other ways of presentation, but have yet to find them.