Art Appreciation of “Ultime Gocce”, painting by Andrea Tavernier

Recently, readers and friends have asked me on the rules of art appreciation. Basically, there is no right or wrong in appreciating art. This is what I usually do, (in this case, appreciating a painting).

Ultime Gocce by Andrea Tavernier

1) Firstly, let go of any stubborn knowledge (or fear).

Empty your mind and let your soul be a sponge to communicate with the painting.

2) Secondly, communicate with the painting to find out its story.

During this time, I’ll study the subject’s facial expression, action or interaction (with his/her surrounding or with another person).

For e.g., among the 3 persons in this painting, the girl who gently raises her head and looks up to the sky catches my attention.

I study her face, and later on, her hands. I am guessing, is she opening the umbrella or is she closing it?

Then, I study the expressions and actions of the woman and the boy. As part of the painting, they are equally important. If there are 30 persons in a painting, I’ll still study each of them attentively to find out his/her story, and then piece each of them up like a jigsaw puzzle to find out the whole story.

3) Lastly, read the title. 

This painting is titled “Ultime Gocce”, or translated as “The Last Drops”. Its title holds a wide meaning; it can mean the last drops of rain or sunshine, and both have a connection with umbrellas.

Hence, in this painting, there are 2 possible stories.

So, I return to my first point, which is to hold no specific knowledge and I’m free to embrace either one of the stories.

This is my simplified version of art appreciation. So, which story do you prefer?

Or, do you have another story? Feel free to share it with us!

Painting: Ultime Gocce, 1898
Artist: Andrea Tavernier
Note: Picture above is only part of the actual painting

Story in a Woven Shawl

Thread of sunlight weaves through Mother’s yellow shawl

Winter sun has made its gentle appearance this morning! I rested my knitted shawl on the the chair and brewed myself a cup of coffee. There and then, this unexpected scene greeted me: the gentle sunlight seeping through the holes of my knitted shawl, like an invisible thread, it weaved through to become one with her. I studied the crisscross of the knit carefully and was astonished of how fine was the work of my then 20-year-old Mom.

Mom never came across to me as being detailed. She always loves to nag at how slow I’ve been, for example, with cooking. She wants things to be done fast, let alone details. She finds my way of cutting and chopping cooking ingredients and placing them into bowls according to colours and patterns before putting them one by one into the cooking wok a pain to endure. She would often say, “You think you’re cooking lunch, but I think you’re actually preparing tonight’s dinner.”

When I was younger, I was often annoyed that my rhythmic cooking was interrupted when Mom started to throw the ingredients which I had prepared into the wok and cooked it her way. She would gleam with brightness, and said, “See, you’re so slow! Like this, isn’t my way faster?”

“Now, you cook it!” I stormed out of the kitchen.

This morning, I realised that there was a time when in fact Mom was slow and delicate, like taking time into knitting fine details into this shawl. I smiled, knowing surely now that I got the “slow-ness” in me from her!

Often, I get asked on why I insist on painting portraits for clients. I think my unexpected discovery from this morning could finely explain it.

Many a time, we think that we know the people closest to us, for my case, Mom. But, through time and through rediscovering little stories from time to time, it is always an unending journey in getting to know them. Perhaps the little things in these little stories hold no great importance, but when we revisit, a surprise awaits. And in my case, I got to know the side of Mom I never knew she had.

PS: I hope Mom will finally let me cook her a slooooow meal when I’m back for Chinese New Year!

Mom and I posing at the front yard of Grandpa’s grocery store

Memories flood in my Painting Briefcase

Back to the apartment I used to stay, and opened the briefcase my landlord has kindly kept for me. At that time, I thought I would only be away for a short couple of months, so I left the calendar as it was, July 2016.

Although I returned only a few months later than planned, but now as I’m looking at the old calendar, it feels as if I am looking at my old self back then.

It hurts a little, but I say to her, “Hey, you! Your worries are all gone.”

As long as we believe, the dream of today can be the reality of tomorrow.

Doughnut Bliss

As crystal sugar melts in your mouth, your taste buds begin to dance with delight. Your eyes widen instantly. A smile spreads across your face. You indulge in another mouthful as you murmur, “Ahhh! What a bliss!”

Doughnuts.

My earliest experience with doughnuts was during my primary school days in Chung Hwa Middle School, Kuala Belait. Before the recess bell rang, my classmates prepared a dollar in their hands, getting ready to race through the classroom door the very instant we heard the bell.

Next, I found myself pushing through a thick crowd struggling to buy a doughnut from Tuckshop Auntie. It was chaotic. Everyone wanted to stand before her. Many peers waved a dollar in their hands and ordered: “One hotdog bun, Auntie!” or “One icing bun, Auntie!” Then, the word, which I dreaded to hear, went “Two doughnuts, Auntie!”

In those days, a dollar could buy you two doughnuts and they sold like hot cakes. Being the shy one, I failed to buy a doughnut in most days because when I finally came before Tuckshop Auntie after the crowd had dispersed, she declared in her colloquial tone, “Doughnuts? Finished already.”

One day came when I mustered enough strength to push through the crowd to get hold of my desired doughnut. I savoured it!

As I was growing up and my life transforming through different stages, I found, so were the doughnuts! Bakeries began to sell different versions of doughnut, the modern ones! Glazed with melted chocolate of different colours – brown, white, or pink; sprinkled with various types of topping from rainbow chocolate rice to cornflakes, from custard to marshmallows; and, decorated with many kinds of design like chocolate stripes, fondant flowers, or jellies.

Sometimes, I love to taste a modern doughnut while other times I prefer to savour a classical one. A bite into a fried dough dusted with sugar springs nostalgia. For a moment, I find a key to unlock the door to my childhood. The chaos in the tuckshop, the fifty-cent coin in my hand, and the sugar that melted in my mouth, with even some stuck on my lips.

Reliving that moment makes me learn that I can enjoy a brief moment of bliss amidst work challenges. It also allows me to relearn the lesson in establishing the reason behind the toiling hours of painting in my studio and the heart-thumping sleepless nights weeks before my participation in art exhibitions overseas.

Why must I do this? Why must I work hard? What do I want to achieve?

I have asked myself these questions in the silence of the night. Each time I tell myself that the reason is as simple as holding a 50-cent coin while mustering strength in pushing through the crowd just so that I can buy a doughnut and savour it.

As crystal sugar melts in my mouth, my taste buds begin to dance with delight. My eyes widen instantly. A smile spreads across my face. I indulge in another mouthful as I murmur, “Ahhh! What a bliss!”

Art From Within Us

2 different cultures. 1 beautiful friendship.

As traveling usually start with great anticipation, mine was no exception. Italy is one of the countries that I love most. Initially, it was because of the love for classical arts but it later grew into something more…

I painted and took a language course in Florence; traveled to Rome to visit art exhibitions and galleries; and visited my artist friend and his family in Pietralunga, an ancient city in the Italian region of Umbria.

One early morning, I hopped onto a train from Florence to Perugia Ponte San Giovanni, where I would then take another train to Umbertide. My friend and his wife would wait there to receive me and together, we would drive to their home in Pietralunga.

While waiting for the next train in the little town of San Giovanni, I walked into a café, ordered a piece of cake and a cup of hot coffee, and sat down in a quiet corner. The waitress and I started a casual conversation. After learning that I had come from afar and had been traveling widely in Italy, she and her customer paid for my meal.

“We just want to say thank you for loving Italy. This is our Italian hospitality!”

Grazie mille (Thank you very much)! And, I will return your hospitality with our Oriental way of gratitude,” I said as I bowed with my hands placed together.

With heavy hearts, we bade farewell.

I took the next train to Umbertide where my friend and his wife welcomed me with warm, open arms.

Upon arriving at their home in Pietralunga, I learned that they had prepared their son’s room for me as their son had gladly offered to stay the night at his grandparents’. I insisted to stay in a hotel but the 3 of them exclaimed together, “We want to thank you for visiting us. This is our Italian hospitality!”

These unforgettable faces! Cristina, Alberto and their son in their garden at Pietralunga.

I told them about that little moment of friendship I had earlier encountered and how I was told that same phrase. We all shared a good laugh and couldn’t have agreed more to that.

The next day, I left for Florence. As the train was arriving, my friends and I gave each other huge teddy bear hugs. I left with a heavy heart; a heart that was filled with enormous gratitude of how strangers and friends from a different culture had blessed me with.

I love Italy for their classical arts and the imagination of the ghosts of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo rubbing shoulders with me on the cold, wet rainy nights as I strolled alone on the streets of Florence. But, some things are not imaginary – like friendship.

I have gathered stories along my art journey. There’s one art that I searched and I finally found it. A work of art that each of us, regardless of cultures or differences, is able to produce…

A friendship.

It requires only 1 simple ingredient.

Love.

Cristina and me in their living room

This article is also contributed to Inspire magazine October-December 2016 version. You can read it here too: https://yesinspire.com/huifong-ng-6/

Make The Time Right

Brushstrokes on the canvas, slowly and surely they sway and swirl. The joyful chirping of birds outside of my apartment, the noisy hammering from the renovation next door, and the peculiar tuneful accent of a chatty neighbour from her private garden downstairs – all exist at once. Quite surprisingly, they make a blissful cacophony!

I am painting in Florence – the city of ancient art, history and philosophy, well known to the world as “The cradle of the Renaissance”. Initially, I came to seek inspirations to write my second book. However, an impromptu decision to participate in a Beijing art expo in three months’ time has also prompted me to paint during my stay here.

The large window at my apartment. I love to sit by the window sipping my morning coffee
The large window at my apartment. I love to sit by the window sipping my morning coffee

Many regard that I am fortunate to be living and working as an independent artist who owns the freedom to travel to places I love while enjoying the pleasure of working at my own pace. While I agree to that opinion, many might not have known that I once owned fear and uncertainty.

Were there times when things worked against your dreams? Times when you looked at your suffering bank account and thought perhaps you should just give up chasing rainbows? And, times when you felt guilty because you were too persistent pursuing your passion?

There were many times I felt exactly that.

I embarked on my artistic journey five years ago. In the first three years, being an art professional seemed like a far-fetched dream because I only managed to sell a piece of drawing. There were countless nights while painting alone in my studio, I heard not only the sound of my brushes working tirelessly against my canvas but I also heard the sound of my shattered dream. Clear, loud, and unbearable.

Then, I looked around me. I saw my artworks and an almost-silent voice in me persisted that I carry on painting.

I chose to continue to paint because while painting, I cast my worries away. I chose to paint because I believed that I was preparing for my future. Instead of worrying and complaining about misfortunes, I chose to prepare myself because I believed that when opportunities knocked, I would have had readied artworks in hand to showcase.

I would be prepared, anytime.

“If it is not the right time, I will make the time right.” I took my first baby step in showcasing my works by holding a solo exhibition and later, I went on to participate in international exhibitions to gain a wider exposure.

While the soft brushstrokes are swaying and swirling on my canvas, I listen to the joyful chirping of birds outside of my apartment, the noisy hammering from the renovation next door, and the peculiar tuneful accent of my chatty neighbour in her private garden, I understand why I find all these a bliss.

It is because I am grateful of how grit and resilience have brought me to this present moment.

Posing with my finished painting "Stage Play" in my Florence apartment
Posing with my finished painting “Stage Play” in my Florence apartment

I have also written a poem in English and Chinese about my thoughts on this painting. You can watch the videos below:

English version:

Chinese version:

And, I shall end this article with a positive quote by Napoleon Hill.

“Don’t wait. The time will never be just right.”

This article is also contributed to Inspire magazine July-September 2016 version. You can read it here too: https://yesinspire.com/huifong-ng-5/

How to get lucky in Florence?

Besides Uffizi Gallery, the old masters and Michelangelo’s statues and the flavorful old stories lingering in the air, there’s actually a fun side of Florence – the Il Porcellino.

Il Porcellino is the lucky bronze pig of Florence which brings good luck to visitors who rub his snout.

Situated just beside a small but busy market close to the city center of Florence, it is quite easy to give this boar statue a miss as it is usually crowded with customers at the market. In fact, I had passed by Il Porcellino almost everyday on my way to my Sculpture and Italian language classes for 2 weeks without realizing this auspicious statue.

Il Porcellino was sculpted around 1634 by a Baroque master, Pietro Tacca (1577–1640).

Now, how to get lucky in Florence?

Follow the steps in the video below

If your coin slips from the mouth of Il Porcellino and drops into the fountain drain *and NOT into its mouth* then you are lucky! If it doesn’t, just keep trying until it does.

As for me, I got it in my first trial. LUCKY!!!

Learning to Live without Fear – My Move to Singapore

“This is even harder than saying “Yes, I do.”,” I tell my friends over coffee. The girls break into giggles and ask why that is so.

“Because, if things don’t work out this time, I have nothing to fall back on,” I reply matter-of-factly.

1st October 2015, my move to Singapore in search of a wider choice of artistic opportunities, will begin. If we could put a price tag on Creativity, what would its value be? Some say that creativity is priceless. Some argue that it is worthless. The answer seems unimportant to some but when you carry a suitcase with the intention of living away from home in the name of Creativity, you want to know the answer.

Being an artist seems like an extraordinary career to many. Initially people are amazed by where artists get their inspiration from, but then the interest wanes when it comes to pursuing this as a serious career. How can an artist survive solely on the sale of his or her works? This is when reality seeps in, turning the artistic career into one that is rarely embarked on. Hence, while everyone loves to make art, few venture into it as a full-time profession.

However, as uncommon as being an artist seems, every profession is extraordinary. The rule lies in not seeking the extraordinary career but in making one’s career extraordinary. Every career has its challenges. It depends on one’s mindset in pushing optimism to a higher level, prompting self-confidence and trusting oneself in optimal delivery.

As a classical portrait painter, I have been refused many times by media and galleries because they prefer to feature abstract painters and showcase their paintings. This is because there is a bigger market for abstract work. There are many times we cannot challenge the truth that our works are appreciated by a smaller group of people. Have you ever experienced this?

Not wanting to change my direction, I changed my mindset. When a trade is less appreciated by the general public, it actually becomes a niche because it caters to an audience who is congenial to this style. In my constant search for opportunities, I’ve learnt to never lose my genuine self and honest style but to enhance it with each learning experience. I continue to experiment – to use this as a stepping stone to better understand and improve my style and techniques. Inspiration can also be drawn from the lives of prominent artists, both past and present – that shows that behind their success lie stories of rejection and failure. However, those same stories show how acceptance and success triumphed in the end.

Mary Cassatt, an American painter (1844–1926) during the peak of Impressionism, was one such person who I greatly admire. Mary did not start off smoothly in the world of painting because of the strong objections from her wealthy family. She was not well-accepted into the less privileged society either because most male painters those days regarded females in the trade as unwelcoming and perhaps, even threatening. In spite of these challenging circumstances Mary continued to pursue her academic studies by herself. She also traveled to Paris and spent many hours tirelessly painting copies of masterpieces in the Louvre as a way to self-improve.

After some years, Mary’s hard work paid off as she became an established artist. However, her yearning to learn art led her to continue studying and painting across Europe. She also actively encouraged young American artists by sponsoring them and using her successful artist’s status to connect wealthy art collectors with works of these new artists.

When I first laid my eyes on Mary’s paintings of children and women – I was immediately captivated. I became even more inspired after learning about her story.

No successful journey ever comes easy. As I stare into my cup of coffee, I ponder what the ingredients are to an extraordinary career. Being in love with your work, the determination to work hard, the relentless pursuit of knowledge, courage to push across limits… My deep thoughts are suddenly interrupted by my girlfriends’ giggles. Oh yes! Don’t forget to add a dash of fun too!

 

*This article was contributed to INSPIRE magazine (Brunei) Oct-Dec 2015 issue. https://yesinspire.com/huifong-ng-3/

 

A Walk at Klong Toey market

Dried fishes are stacked neatly among other goods at a stall in Klong Toey market
Dried fishes are stacked neatly among other goods at a stall in Klong Toey market

The aroma of rare spices and dried fishes welcomed us as our eyes feasted on the sight of the plenitude of colours and characters in Klong Toey market. 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was
fierce and the air was dry. This October weather in Bangkok was unsurprisingly warm but it was not the only thing that was warm.

11 of us from Don George’s travel writing workshop arrived at the market all drenched in sweat. However, our pure intention of absorbing all that we could from this market: the sight, the sense, the smell and the story and write about them as an assignment did not deter us from exploring the place.

As I walked through the aisle between the stalls, my eyes laid on the emotionless faces, or so I thought. However, when I was about to raise my phone camera to capture them in the moment, their visages broke into broad smiles with a certain gentleness and genuinity spreading across them. They were shy but they politely allowed me to take their pictures.

“Kob khun ka,” I imitated their melodious lilt as I placed my hands together to my chest and bowed a little to express gratitude like the locals.

Mother and child

Small toddlers resting in their mothers’ arms, young teenagers tending stalls in their school uniforms, men buried in their businesses while one taking his afternoon nap like a log, elderly in their casual chatting over meals; the market was filled with interesting characters spanning across generations. This sense of filial piety which was rooted deeply in the Thai culture was not something to be taken lightly. Each stall may be small but they are businesses with mouths to feed, children to educate and elderly to take care of.

I also noticed that each stall had a small praying golden altar which roughly measured about 1.5 feet in breadth and width hanging high above. Garlands of colourful flowers decorated each altar as faithful offerings. Despite the cacophony in the background, such a view instilled serenity in my heart. Trust, belief and devotion to a higher power in the daily lives of the Thai market vendors were probably the essences that uphold their strong sense of filial piety.

The noises from the tuk-tuks, motorcycles and cars mingled in the dry air while gentle cacophonic conversations played like music in the background. The Thai people spoke gently with sweet melodious cadence and occasional outbursts of uncontrollable laughter. Each character added colour to this place. The rare spices and dried fishes, the aroma and the stench, the noises and the music; they co-existed harmoniously in Klong Toey market. The October weather was unsurprisingly warm in Bangkok but what were warmer that afternoon were the welcoming broad smiles spreading across the faces of the market vendors. For one moment, I felt they were friends whom I had not met for a long time.

A vendor taking his lunch break at the market.
A vendor taking his lunch break at the market.

Their golden smiles whispered to me, Welcome to Thailand, the Land of Smiles.

Learning a new language

How does speaking and writing in 5 languages (and 2 dialects) feel like?

Sometimes, it can feel a little twisted in the mind when I start to fill in a French conversation with Italian words, or vice versa. Sometimes, I will also be dumbfounded in a conversation as I frantically “flip” through my imaginary dictionary in the head to look for that one word – the one word which I used to know so well but I just can’t seem to remember at a time I feel it is most appropriate to use.

When it comes to me speaking Mandarin, Cantonese, English or Malay, it is smooth-sailing because those are the the languages I’ve grown up with, speaking them with my family and friends as well as in school and at work.

Hokkien is a little tricky because of the different tones and accents spoken in different parts of ASEAN. Usually, I still can get by with it by adding some Mandarin words into it.

However, these are the 3 valuable lessons that I’ve learnt from learning these languages:

1) to be reminded to be humble and respective of other languages.

Many rules in a foreign language cannot be bent nor can they be changed to suit one’s mother tongue.

E.g. I am thirsty.

In French, it is “J’ai soif”. In Italian, It is “Ho sete”, which means I have thirst.

There is no way that we can bend this vocabulary in order to suit what we are used to saying. Hence, in each language we must acknowledge its differences, embrace the rules and accept its unique beauty.

2) to implement positive thoughts while learning a new language.

Never think that a language is difficult. When you learn to think of it as interesting, you will find that learning is fun and easy!

3) to see more in-depth beauty in another culture.

The next time you travel, you might like to learn greetings and expressing gratitude in the language of your visiting country.

In Italy, I always greet “Buongiorno!”, “Buonasera!” or “Ciao!” or bid “Buona giornata!” or “Buona serata!” when I leave.

In France, I greet “Bonjour!” or bid “Bonne journée!”.

To Malay friends, vendors, or clients, although they understand perfectly what “Thank you” means, I will still choose to thank them with a “Terima kasih!”

This is because when I greet or thank a person in his own language, I see that his smile is broader and his eyes brighter. It is a simple genuine gesture to say I appreciate you and I love your culture. Of course, not to forget to always seal the words with the international language, – a smile!

Greetings in the same language and seal them with a smile!