Tuesday, June 7, 2011

No flight of fancy

By ROUWEN LIN star2@thestar.com.my
Sunday June 5, 2011

After years of dabbling in various art forms, a veteran artist has solid plans etched out for the future.

IT was 60 years ago when a nurse came to tend to his ill father in their little wooden house in Gambang, about 30 kilometres from Kuantan, Pahang, but Loo Foh Sang says the memory of that day is as clear as if it was yesterday. After all, she accurately predicted his future.

“Your little boy will grow up to be a successful artist one day,” the nurse told his mother, while admiring his charcoal works on the walls of the house.

Loo, the youngest boy in a family of nine children, was then seven.

“I drew on every surface I could find and my mother didn’t seem to mind. No one gave much thought to what the nurse said because it was not common then for people to pursue drawing seriously. Nowadays, even if you don’t like to draw, your parents will send you to art class,” he says at Sutra Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, where his solo exhibition, Full Flight II, will be held starting Tuesday.

Trained in France: Young Loo Foh Sang studied art in Paris. He came back to Malaysia, then returned to the city and stayed for another 17 years.

The artist often ends up gesturing frantically with his hands when trying to get a point across.

“I think I’d be able to explain what I mean much better in French. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived in France for so long, I’ve forgotten how to speak English!” he adds, referring to the 20 over years he spent abroad. It was there that he learned the art of printmaking – the focus of this exhibition – under the tutelage of Englishman Stanley William Hayter, the printmaker and painter who founded Atelier 17, one of the most influential print workshops of the last century.

“Paris is nice, very nice. There was plenty going on in the art scene there, although I did sometimes find it difficult to make friends with the locals. I studied French for a year and spent four years studying art at the École Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-Arts in Paris before printmaking.

“I took twice as many classes as anyone else with Hayter because I wanted to return to Malaysia as quickly as possible. But after coming home, I changed my mind and instead returned to Paris, where I opened my own studio and lived for another 17 years. My twin sons were born and raised there and I only returned to Malaysia in 1988.”

For the next 15 years or so, Loo taught printmaking at the Malaysian Institute of Art and was subsequently appointed head of the fine arts department at Central Academy of Art, both in KL.

“That was the reason I came back to Malaysia – to teach and educate others. Many people here do not know much about printmaking and I thought it was time to come home and give back what I can.”

Loo says he is retired now – but that’s just the official version, because he also believes an artist never really hangs up his palette.

Loo with prints for his exhibition, called Full Flight II. — Chua Kok Hwa / The Star

Your work never really ends. The older you get, the better your art becomes. Although I’m back for good, I do make time to return to Paris for a holiday every two or three years. It’s nice to catch up with old friends and see how much has changed in the city since the last time I was there.”

Despite his early start with charcoal, Loo says there was a time when no one would have guessed that he’d end up on a lifelong journey in art. He was a whizz with numbers in school.

“I was better at mathematics than I was in art. I was awarded a scholarship to study in Taiwan at 15 but my mother thought it was too soon for me to leave home. So I finished secondary school here and ended up studying art at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore,” he says.

His Parisian journey halfway across the world had seemed just as unlikely. With not much money in his pocket and fresh out of art school, Loo had his first exhibition in Bentong, Pahang. He sold 60 of the 100 works on display.

"I was new and no one knew my works. I am very grateful to friends and family for their support. How else could I have sold so many paintings at my first exhibition?”

The money he got was enough to pay for his flight to Paris in 1966 and take care of his living expenses for six months.

“Of course, after that I had to find part-time work to pay the bills!”

Loo has tried his hand at various artforms including ink, oil and printing. But in recent years, he has focused mainly on stencil on silkscreen, woodcut, etching and engraving.

Full Flight II features about 40 artworks of varying sizes, using etching, one of the traditional printmaking techniques.

In his first print exhibition at Sutra Gallery, In Full Flight, in 2005, Loo was inspired by the Indian classical dance of Odissi.

The current show continues to explore his fluid figures that give an impression of being slightly distorted with their elongated limbs, spindly torso and exaggerated curves. However, while the previous display concentrated solely on capturing the beauty of Odissi dancers, this one showcases Malaysian culture in all its diversity.

“This exhibition is a representation of my works from 2002 till now. They are all etchings, done free-hand, of traditional musical instruments, wayang kulit, Peking opera, classical Indian dance and cock fighting.”

Loo says in Malaysia, it is more common for printmakers to do floral motifs or landscapes than figures.

He believes it is his unique spin on a traditional printmaking technique that sets him apart from the other artists.

“Coming up with the ‘right’ composition to best capture the motion in these works, with the level of detail that I incorporate, is not something easy to do. But you have to work hard,” he says.

And work hard he does. Particularly as he is determined to be a centenarian.

“I have big plans and I plan to live up to at least 100. I will start a printmaking research centre and workshop. Once I hit 70, I will make arrangements to open an art museum. Maybe I’ll call it the Loo Foh Sang Museum of Art,” he adds, grinning.

Full Flight II runs from Tuesday till July 5. Sutra Gallery is at 12, Persiaran Titiwangsa 3, KL. Viewing hours are 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday. Call 03-4021 1092 for details.

Full Flight II