ARTIST Kristian Lee sees Sarawak through the eyes of a foreigner although he is ethically a local.
He was born in Sarawak but grew up in the US to which his family emigrated when he was nine years old.
The intriguing sounds and sights of his birthplace captivate him. He takes out his brush and palette and starts capturing them for posterity with well-honed artistic skills. Using vivid and vibrant colors, he immortalises the soul of Kuching city on canvas.
Lee applies the impressionist’s techniques of leaving spaces to the individual’s imagination, effectively transporting viewers to another realm. Through his practised strokes, he lets them into his world … to see what he sees and feels. This is evident in his two paintings — ‘City Lights’ and ‘Lantern Festival’.
On the other hand, his ‘Simujan Meadows’ has a more laidback quality, giving viewers a sense of peace and tranquility. Here, Lee abandons the impressionist’s techniques and applies the detailed approach that immerses viewers in the painting.
Lee was recently accepted into the Sarawak Artists Society that counts among its members reputable local artists, and at just 26, he is the youngest among them.
“I’m really honoured to be accepted as a member,” he said, adding that it was a privilege to be part of the Society.
His paintings were exhibited alongside those of established local names like Petrus Alfred, Sylvester Jussem, Raphael Scot, Michael Chong and Michael Poh at the Sarawak Artists Society’s 25th Anniversary Show at the Sarawak Museum, Tun Abdul Razak Hall in Kuching.
It was his first exhibition as an artist in his birthplace. And having his paintings displayed together with the local greats’ was for the young artist a big honour. Lee has always wanted to produce and exhibit paintings of his hometown.
“It’s my dream that one day I would be able to show my works here. I relish the idea of doing paintings of my birthplace because that way, I believe I can capture some of the memorable scenes and highlights for future generations,” he said.
Before embarking on the journey of self-discovery home, he had been commissioned to paint for an advertising company.
He had also sold a couple of his works at his first exhibition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of his paintings — a portrait of his late grandfather — generated a lot interest but his mother wants to keep it in the family. The painting now hangs above the mantle piece in his home at Lower Gynedd, Philadelphia.
Lee does not have much memory of Kuching, having left for Kuala Lumpur when he was five. His family moved to the US when he was nine and he grew up there.
He has been intrigued by stories of his birthplace. Since leaving Sarawak in 1992, he has never been back except for two short visits when his grandparents passed away. He left as a boy and returned as a young man to reconnect with his roots.
“My intention when I came back with my cousin was to reconnect with family members whom I have not seen for ages. We only talked through long distant calls during festive seasons,” he said.
Lee also wanted to see as much as he could of Malaysia and Sarawak and the Far East. What he didn’t bargain for was falling in love with his hometown.
“Everything about Kuching is so exciting — the sounds, the smell and, of course, the food. It’s a whole new world for me.”
Drawn to the cultures of the local natives, he celebrated his first ever Gawai at a longhouse in Sri Aman. There, he got to savour the real taste of Sarawak with his first cup of tuak.
He described his first bath in the river as being “totally immersed in Mother Nature.”
“We bathed in the river the first thing on the morning of Gawai. I was told it’s a symbolic gesture and after the dip, we headed back to the longhouse for a proper bath.”
He said he liked the idea of a morning dip as well as the communal feeling that went with it.
According to him, artists find quaintness alluring.
During his college days in America, he would come home with thrown away antiques. He salvaged and turned them into works of art.
It’s the unique blend of the old and new Kuching that this University of the Arts (Philadelphia) graduate finds so appealing that it prompts him to paint.
“Sarawak is so rich in heritage and cultural diversity and the fact that they are so evident even in the age of modernity is amazing.”
Citing the examples of Carpenter Street, Gambier Street, India Street and Main Bazaar, he said they formed a kaleidoscope of colours and activities.
It is small wonder one of his first paintings of the city depicts the Lantern Festival in Carpenter Street.
He intends to capture what he sees and experiences here on canvas and brings them back to America.
“I like to tour the state, not only the towns but also the interior so I can have a better feel of the place. It would be nice to know my birthplace in greater depth, and when I return to the US, I want to sell Sarawak through my paintings.”
Lee has been busy since leaving a lecturing post in an institute of higher learning to devote his time to his passion. He has been travelling to the remote areas in his blue Kenari.
He sees his sojourn as a pursuit of a new experience and an opportunity to broaden his outlook, which, he believes, will help make him a better artist.
“There’s so much to learn and experience and I’m taking full advantage of my time here because when I go back to America, I don’t know when I will return again. Maybe another 10 years.”
Lee has done justice to his hometown with his paintings and will continue to do so with love wherever he may be. Those who like to view his paintings can contact the Society or 014-9950171.