By Ooi Kok Chuen
A QUIRKY trend of occupying a targeted space has gripped a ragged band of vagabonds who rarely stray from the 1,046sq km that make up Greater Penang. Numbering from five to as many as 50 persons, they mainly stay close to the island with its intoxicating brew of street life, pre-War architecture and quaint alleyways, oases of green alcoves and aroma of street-hawker food of Chinese, Malay and Indian origins.
Armed with sketchbooks, brushes, pens and pencils or whatever, they are only bent on capturing on location the alfresco mood of places and people at decisive moments—drawn from life, not from photographs and memory, or still lifes or even posed models.
They are Urban Sketchers Penang (USk Penang).
USk Penang has similar but totally independent coteries in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere all over the world. Sometimes, the outstation or foreign stragglers join in as individuals to network. This is also ground-tapping, as only locals are privy to the ideal vantage points or painting-savvy sites or angles.
Though this sketching trend has gone viral all over the world, the groups are neither affiliated as an international chain nor formally registered. The original group was started by Spanish-born illustrator-journalist Gabriel Campanario in Seattle, US in 2007. Apart from workshops, the group has held annual international symposiums since 2010. The first was held in Portland, US and the second in Lisbon, Portugal (2011); this year’s will be held in Santo Domingo from July12-14 with the tagline “See The World One Drawing At A Time”.
The Penang “chapter” does not have a headquarters at which to meet, but shares a common platform on Facebook – which acts as a notice board, exhibition space as well as interactive hub for its loose pool of members (as of May 13, they number 210). It is also a forum for sharing resource materials available in the region.
But not all members actually “turun padang” to sketch whenever venue and time are fixed. Some “members” are just embedded supporters or spectators following the group’s progress as the sketchers hop from one place to another like bees in search of pollen and nectar.No one’s going to be penalised or get the boot even if one has not attended a single sketching session. It’s a “whoever can, can; or can’t, can’t” situation – non-obligatory. It’s also non-discriminatory of age, gender, race, religion, status or proficiency.
It’s art democracy at work with the veterans and the more established mingling with the clueless novices. No one pulls rank as everyone has the freedom to do what one likes, within the prescribed parameters.
USk Penang is headed by the twin watercolour masters Ch’ng Kiah Kiean, 38, and Khoo Cheang Jin, 49 – both are architecture-trained (Ch’ng at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, and Khoo in Australia) and both have created their own niche in paintings of old built heritage.
Khoo is also president of the Penang Watercolour Society, of which Ch’ng is the treasurer. Ch’ng has published two coffee-table books of his sketches: Sketches of Pulo Pinang (2009) and Line-Line Journey (2011).Some sketchers even come with family members in tow especially during weekends, bringing with them a picnic atmosphere. It’s all in the family, and confirms the adage “The family that paints together, stays together.”
There is no set style or mode of expression or subjects, though these are contingent to the place selected, nor is there any insistence of preferred medium.
The members do not stick to traditional media of brush and paper or even canvas. For example, Seremban-born Li Jynn, a self-styled eco-artist cum photographer-graphic designer, plumbs for unconventional materials such as twigs to paint, polystyrene meal box, Bodhi tree leaves, toilet-roll cardboard scroll and carton board. Among her more exceptional sketches is the one on the Wat Chayamangalaram.
Others like Cameron Highlands-based Marni Zainordin do it on postcards. Jayson Yeoh, a children’s art educator, finds the shape of the jars in the Thin Seng Soy Sauce Factory fascinating while Rinna Clanuwat, the founder of Mindtrigger Co. Ltd, prefers a map of the hawkers’ paradise.
At a set time, these sketchers will reassemble and compare notes, with the wilier ones offering technical pointers or suggestions. Often, a group photograph is taken as a memento before they set off to their favourite hawker food haunts nearby.
The USk Penang sketchers are highly active, sometimes even doing it individually, and have covered quite a bit of ground. Balik Pulau, Gurney Paragon, Love Lane, Straits Quay, Kwan Im Teng, Lok Villa, Tanjung Tokong Tua Pek Kong Temple, Armenian Street, Boon Sang Tong, 1st Avenue shopping complex, St George’s Church, Bodhi Heart Sanctuary, Prangin Road and Chulia Street, just to name a few. Such is their enthusiasm that they also strike during festivals such as Thaipusam and Wesak Day.“On average, we get about 15 sketchers at each session,” says Ch’ng.
Ch’ng reveals that the smallest turnout was at the sketch-about at Toh Aka Lane, surprisingly, as the street’s character often attracts and challenges artists. Only five showed up for the March 4 outing. But then the members who could not make the appointed date could always do so later, on their own.
The April 16 session saw a huge turnout of nearly 50 at its session around the Penang State Museum II at No. 57 Macalister Road. The sketching entourage included students from the KDU College.
Once, some USk members from Singapore headed by Tia Boon Sim joined in. “A Singapore member, Woon Lam Ng, also shared a slide presentation with us,” says Ch’ng.
Regular foreigners who join in the street-pounding exercises are Luisa Hung (Taiwan), Katsuhiro and Michiko Sato (Japan), Ernest Zacharevic (Latvia), Gwynn Jenkins (England) and Rinna Clanuwat. Visiting foreign sketchers come from Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Iran.
USk Penang is having its most ambitious sketchwalk yet, hosting an international sketching extravaganza of Penang’s heritage zone as part of the 3rd George Town Festival. The sketch-about, from July 7-8, will culminate in an exhibition at China House on July 9-22. The mega event will involve USk groups from Kuala Lumpur (headed by E.S. Tung), Singapore (Tia Boon Sim), Bangkok (Asnee Tasna) and Taipei (Carlton Chen). The enclave areas covered are Pitt Street, Armenian Street, Beach Street and the Clan Jetties.
Sketching in unfamiliar territory is not without its perils. Fortunately, the sketchers do not encounter any untoward mishap especially from stray dogs. Ch’ng says that when they sketched the Thin Seng Sauce Factory before its relocation (this was featured in the Guang Ming Daily), they were warmly welcomed.
But unpleasant experiences there were—at the 1st Avenue car park (on New Year’s Day, 2012), Gurney Paragon (April) and the St George’s Church.
“We were sketching the St George’s Church when one of the church members protested that we had not applied for permission to sketch, and that it was an infringement of the church’s copyright! What upset me most was that it was on Christmas Eve, when the church usually opens its doors to everyone,” says Ch’ng, who will be having his fifth solo exhibition of his sketches called “Sketching Memories” at Art Accent in Bangsar Village II, Kuala Lumpur in July.
His robust stark-black strokes with an understated elegance achieved through ink and washes is reminiscent of the Singapore art doyen Lim Tze Peng’s (Lin Zi-ping). A work on the Koo Soo Kwong Choon Tong in Muntri Street brings back fond memories of my “Pepper-King” grandfather Ooi Geok Kean’s mansion, where I grew up.Not all the members are art-college trained. In fact, most come from various professions. Leong Yoke Mee, however, added Art (Kuala Lumpur College of Art) to her Technology-Building training. Chuah Teong Meow has strong watercolour credentials while fellow watercolourist Ooi Seng Chai’s forte is also as his pseudonym “Sculpture Ooi” suggests.
The group’s activities can be accessed at USkPenang@groups.facebook.com
Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.