HE stood there for a long time, staring at swathes of paint peeling off on two rows of shophouses and trying to see what artists usually do – beyond the scenery.
He walked to the far end and stood there, doing what he just did. Again his artistic eyes failed to capture the intended images. Thinking a different angle might help, he looked at the shophouses from the sides. It didn’t work either.
Kuching-born self-taught artist Huon Kee Hwang’s creativity was having an off day – stifled by what is known as an artist’s mental block. At that time, he just couldn’t bring himself to paint Siniawan, a small historically steeped bazaar off Kuching-Bau Road.
“It was just two rows of shophouses in an old tired town. I couldn’t capture them on canvas. It just didn’t feel right,” he lamented.
On the way home, he kept asking what should he paint. He wasn’t commissioned to do a painting of the archaic bazaar but the artist in him challenged him to do one – even for keep-sake. But the inspiration was missing.
Huon felt failure creeping all over him, an over-powering feeling of negativity and disillusionment.
After a ‘dry’ period, he didn’t even bother to pick up the easel and brush. Then one morning – during the wee hours – he sat in front of a canvas, closed his eyes and let his mind wander.
That was when the magic started to happen. For the first time in a long while, he was able to see clearly, in his mind, the haunting beauty and forlorn nature of the bazaar. Not wanting to let the moment of inspiration dim into oblivion, he wasted no time capturing the mysticisms of Siniawan with his brush but wasn’t too thrilled about the result at first.
Recalled the 41-year-old painter: “I wasn’t all that keen to see my finished work – just in case I might be disappointed.”
But disappointed he was not. In fact, he was stunned by what he saw – his painting of Siniawan was brilliant.
No artistic ambition
Huon never thought of becoming a full-time artist, believing he wasn’t good enough. And of all the things he thought of doing, being an artist was way down the list.
He enjoyed reading comics and this kindled his interest in sketching figures.
“I remember drawing the figures in the comics, especially my heroes. I would spend hours drawing them – it had to be prefect. Oh, how I wasted paper! Each time, I made a mistake, or if my sketches did not resemble the figures in the comics, I tore them up.”
Huon is also passionate about sports and bodybuilding is his favourite. The gym was like a second home and it was only natural that he took the job of gym instructor.
While working at the gym, he dabbled in sculpturing, making figurines of his comics heroes. A friend who recognised his talent, suggested he take it a step further by trying pottery.
Heeding the advice, Huon showed his works to a pottery shopowner who was impressed and wanted him to make figurines of cats. That was the start.
Huon learned the ropes working at the pottery shop as an apprentice. He got so good that some of his works were displayed at the Cats Museum in Kuching.
His confidence as an artist began to grow. With no training whatsoever, the determined autodidact turned to oil painting and sought tips from a painter friend who frequented the gym.
In his first try, he managed to produce four paintings, selling three and keeping the first for remembrance. The sales boosted his morale.
“I have to admit I felt good and ready for anything,” he recalled.
According to him, passion aside, getting paid for one’s works is highly motivating and a great morale booster.
With newfound confidence, he began to specialise in oil paintings and his interests lie in capturing the rich cultures and the diversity of Sarawak.
After making a name for himself in Kuching, he left for Kuala Lumpur to get more exposure.
“The art scene in KL is more vibrant. The culture there is all about aggressiveness and going out to get what you want. There is no place for complacent artists.”
While struggling to make ends meet, Huon made more sales than he had imagined possible. He exhibited his works alongside his peninsular counterparts.
Noting the art scene in KL was way ahead of Kuching’s, he decided, on his return, to correct the imbalance but it didn’t work out the way he envisaged.
“I was hitting my head against the brick wall. In the process, I lost my spirit to bring chance. I was no longer burning with the same enthusiasm,” he said.
But one good thing did come out of the setback. Huon started compiling documents and written materials on local pioneer artists. It wasn’t easy but perseverance saw him through. He faced many obstacles but his patience and good nature soon won him many friends and supporters.
In 2008, he organised a retrospective exhibition entitled Sarawak’s 1st Generation Fine Art Artist, featuring six local artists – all of them old timers.
“I realise these first generation artists are not being recognised or appreciated. Our public have no time for art and the people who have made it. So before they passed on, someone had to document their works and contributions.”
Huon’s painstaking documentations will be released this year.
So far, he has held two solo exhibitions – Portraits of Sarawak in Kuala Lumpur (2003) and Portraits of Malaysia in Kuching (2005).
His paintings also adorn various galleries in the country and the homes of collectors, including the Yang di-Pertuan Agong XII Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Ibni Al-Marhum Tuanku Syed Putra Jamalullail.
In 2003, Huon was commissioned to draw the portraits of His Majesty (Yang di-Pertuan Agong XII) and his Consort, Tuanku Fauziah binti Tengku Abdul Rashid.
His oil masterpieces can be viewed now till February 14 at the Sarawak Museum. Titled From Studio to Old Street – Capturing cultural heritage through art, the last of his genre exhibition is jointly organised by the Heritage Society and the Sarawak Museum. On display are about 20 of his paintings of Siniawan.
Huon acknowledged he couldn’t have done it without the encouragement and help of Mike Boon, former president of the Heritage Society.
“This is my last exhibition of such genre. It’s time to move on to another genre. I don’t know what but it will be something different.”
Whatever he has in mind, he will definitely excel in it. His patience, strong sense of commitment and refusal to accept failure will promise him more sweet rewards.