Life lessons on creativity from a famed artist
The STPI exhibition, Soo Pieng: Master Of Composition, offers a compelling look at creativity through a Singapore pioneer artist’s work. (Photos: STPI)

Life lessons on creativity from a famed artist

For a free lesson on how to be creative from one of Singapore’s most important artists, visit the exhibition, Soo Pieng: Master Of Composition, held at STPI.

The show features some 50 works by Singapore pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng, ranging from paintings to sculpture, and pieces rarely seen in public. The works, made between the 1940s and 1980s, span an eclectic mix and highlight Cheong’s restless imagination, knack for creativity, and skill at bringing disparate ideas and emotions together.

Cheong, born in Xiamen, China in 1917, studied at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts and Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai. He relocated to Singapore after World War II and taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

His body of work over more than three decades shows constant experimentation with a wide range of media and materials, including sand, clay and metal on canvas. He also explored various artistic expressions and techniques, blending modern abstraction with Chinese ink and everyday scenes from Southeast Asia.

Indeed, it is his innovative approach to art, which mirrors STPI’s collaboration with artists at its paper- and print-making workshop, that prompted the gallery to devote a show to the artist, says its director Rita Targui.

But how is it possible for someone to be endlessly creative and inventive? We ask the exhibition’s curator Seah Tzi-Yan to pick three works from the show that offer handy tips.


Untitled, 1967, mixed media and metal relief on wood

Stay composed

If you look closely, you might notice that the compositions in Cheong’s works are captivating variations on a theme. His untitled mixed media and metal relief on wood work (above), for example, has a compositional rigour that recurs in Cheong’s landscape paintings. One key to endless innovation: having solid structures that one can improvise on.


Untitled, 1974, mixed media and oil on canvas

Carry the basics forward

Cheong was interested in the human figure and people were a common subject in his works, but he didn’t depict them in only one way. There were realistic portraits, but also abstract representations.

His trio of untitled abstract paintings (above) were said to be portraits of each of his three children. They are composed of simple geometric shapes such as rounded rectangles and trapeziums, but the way in which they are composed is anything but simplistic, and they imbue the work with symbolic significance.


Malay Boy with Bird, 1982, Chinese ink on canvas

Borrow and blend

Cheong draws inspiration for the subject of his works from everyday scenes, and he deftly borrows from a variety of visual languages too, including Chinese ink painting, modern abstraction and local crafts. His iconic Malay Boy with Bird (above), which is rarely shown in public, reflects this versatility and adroitness of skill. His choice to leave the canvas untreated, evoking the feel of a gunny sack, also adds to the work’s bucolic feel.

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