The Edge: Studios in Penang

“We are informed about the gallery space but never involved with it as being an extension of the artist’s studio – a haven that purifies emotions through the evocation of fear, stimulation of thought and interaction.”

– Faisal Abu’Allah

I always prefer to work in the studio. It isolates people from their environment. They become in a sense… symbolic of themselves.”

– Richard Avedon

It is the gallery, not the studio, which runs synonymous with the public’s imagination of art. Whether they are white cubes or more flamboyant in style, conjuring a mental idea of art invariably reveals the walls they are finally mounted on, an artwork’s resting place after a long journey of experimentation, trial, infatuation and dedication.

Yet the journey of a piece of art starts and continues in the studio, a space not usually accessible to the public. In this private area, artists become themselves more so than at any other time. Alone and quiet, surrounded by a physical environment representing their mental state, comforted by random order, an artist suddenly enters a world wholly their own. To the public, it is a space shrouded in mystique.

Despite the proliferation of murals in George Town, it is rare to see an artist at work. If searching for George Town’s murals can be likened to an urban safari, then catching an artist in the act of painting must be the lion’s kill. It brings in a crowd bristling with smartphones, awestruck at finally witnessing the act, first-hand, in real life. To the artist, it is an occasion with little relevance, merely the extension of a process usually conducted in seclusion, in private, in the studio. Some artists fear working in public more than anything else.

Alex Leong has been a painter all his life. At the age of five, Alex would horde the white paper used by his grandmother to cover the table for playing mahjong with her friends. Needless to say, Alex used the salvaged white paper to sketch superheroes doing battle, covering them in infantile doodles that, above all else, spelt out his future as an artist.

After a lifetime of dedication, Alex is well-known as a watercolour artist aimed at capturing Malaysian life concerning the every day, such as recording childhood memories of playing in the street. Due to his preferred medium and subject, Alex has a particular habit of sketching in situ, possibly adding some watercolour for depth, then taking his research back to his studio as the basis for a final piece. This particular modus operandi does not present the studio as a very important aspect in Alex’s work, it would seem. However, he assures that it is where the magic happens.

Alex has a studio in Bayan Lepas, near where he and his family live. He has had his studio there for almost twenty years after having moved from George Town, which if little else puts George Town’s rising rental problem into some perspective – the perspective of a local artist, no less. Either way, his studio stands out as atypical to what one may imagine an artist’s studio to be; white walls, neatly organised and stylish, as studios go. Alex uses his studio for much more than just painting.

To off-set the fiscal woes of being an artist – especially one that began his career as a rising artistic talent of Penang in 1992 – Alex has been teaching art for almost as long as he has been practicing it. Due to this, he cleans the studio every weekend and has a very particular order to his workflow. Breaking up his office, painting studio and the classroom for his students gives him at least three definite areas that he manages with a couple of assistants. His studio itself portrays a man with a great amount of stability in his life; Alex has a wife, an adorable daughter and considerable notoriety in a dream career that has furnished group exhibitions, solo exhibitions, society memberships, awards and rising auction house prices. The studio is tidy – in a childlike way – and sparsely furnished to the point of looking designed. The workstation, identifiable by a paint palette, easel and brush jar, reflects the same minimalist set-up expected of someone who paints outside – which Alex typically does. For some strange reason, while portraying him as an artist, his studio does not define him, whereas sitting on the street side, hunkered over a canvas folder and an assortment of travelling paints and brushes would immediately peg him as that artist of old – the watercolour artist.

However, it is a special place for him filled with inspiration that he coverts more than anything else.  He works there six days a week – except Wednesday, which is family day – and the weekend is dedicated to his students. When he has a lot of work on his plate, he often sleeps there for a couple of nights, or until he misses his family too much. Considering he does most of his work outside, one of his studio’s most inspiring areas is his bookshelf filled with books collected over his long career giving him advice on all aspects of watercolour painting. Possibly his biggest inspiration in the studio, however, comes from his students. “Sometimes I have a lot of inspiration from my students. The young students have new ideas. They are very free in their drawing, so sometimes, when they draw, I can see a lot of interesting compositions.”

Another studio, this time in George Town and the direct opposite of Alex’s in terms of style or meaning, is carpenter Arthur Lamon’s space on Chulia Street. Arthur’s versatile knowledge of product design has him making lamps, sculptures, games and bars, among other things, all from wood. His studio is made, unsurprisingly, from wood; wooden work benches, wooden shelving, wooden storage closets and, by the front door, an assortment of woven polypropylene bags filled with sawdust. It is a small room with one window and two doors, and the heavy air smells of wood chippings.

This is not a place designed to facilitate inner Zen, and as you look around, another, more ominous feeling comes to mind. Breaking up the brown, monochromatic environment are shocks of yellow, orange and steel, colours that signify an array of dangerous looking machinery with jagged saws, in some cases complete with a worryingly large, bright red STOP button.

They do not seem to faze Arthur, however, who moves around the studio confidently despite a series of accidents. “The worst one was with just a manual hand saw that somehow slipped and I cut the hand that I was holding the piece of wood with. It was on an area of very meaty flesh, so it went through it like butter. I had to go hospital after that, so that wasn’t good.” Amazingly, after nearly five years as a woodworker, he has never had a tangle with an electrically powered saw – touch wood.

Nevertheless, the space rages at those not used to it in the same way that a dangerous animal enclosure threatens those in close proximity with tooth and claw. On the first impression, it is a space more likely to initiate a fight or flight reflex than inspiration. Yet, hanging from the ceiling is a skeletal model of a pterodactyl and, in one corner, a prototype of Pooch, the skeletal model of a six-foot squatting dog used in the 2016 George Town Festival. “Most of my inspiration comes from problem-solving, working out how to go about something within my limitations. Usually, a prototype starts with something that doesn’t look like anything and then it evolves. Somewhere in the middle there is a nice prototype. I like having things in here that have changed a lot. It is kind of a display of my creative process.”

Working in this type of environment, it is no wonder that Arthur has laid out a floor plan that maximizes efficiency. The central workbench serves as the focus point for work, everything else laid out around it for different stages of a project – for easy access to hand tools and measuring tools, for example. Wisely, Arthur has paid special attention to the locations of those menacing machines to make sure they are out of the way and not surrounded by clutter. He religiously spends eight hours a day, four times a week in the studio and, without wifi, has no distractions when working wood. Even so, it is a space that Arthur has a fluctuating relationship with: “Sometimes it does get a bit too much. It is very hot, very dusty, and when you’re not working on a project that you love it adds up. Being hot and dusty becomes an issue. But then, if I am away for two days from my studio, I can’t wait to get back.”

Further south on Armenian street, a tourist Mecca lined with gentrified shophouses, is artist Tom Powell’s painting studio. Located on the first floor behind a modest yet tastefully furnished gallery area, Tom’s studio has a high ceiling and white walls covered, almost completely, with paintings past and present. Two tables in the middle of the studio are festooned with typical artist clutter and two large cupboards on opposite sides are filled with paints, brushes and equipment. Other more surprising objects include a twelve-inch tall art mannequin, a woman’s plastic bust, a broken clock and a room divider decorated with a kinky-looking Marilyn Munroe. Tom is a self-confessed hoarder and these things make for a surprisingly modest collection, believe me.

Tom has been in this particular space for just under a year and recently acquired his greatest asset – an air conditioner. As a space, this studio rates at the top of his list because, in his words, “it’s a more visually interesting space than any studio I have had, and the biggest one I’ve had so far,” despite having to deal with dust and leaks, which he has never had to contend with. “I’m a bit scared of it catching on fire,” he added, as an afterthought.

However, his new studio already holds a special place in his heart for two very important reasons. In November 2016, Tom hosted a small wedding reception in the gallery and studio to celebrate tying the knot. An important moment in anybody’s life, it imprinted the space in his memory forever as the beginning of a new chapter and the first of many memories to come.

It also provides the serendipitous opportunity of reliving past fortune. The ground floor of the building is occupied by two artists who mentored Tom during his early days of painting in Penang – Fuan Wong’s glass sculpture gallery and Howard Tan’s photography outlet. Both Howard and Fuan, among others, made up the foundation of Penang’s art scene before George Town’s mural explosion. For Tom, who began life as an artist in Penang above Howard and Fuan’s shared space in another shophouse along Armenian street in 2009, they both guided, facilitated and helped nurture his artistic career. “I think I like, very much, the fact that it is conjoined to Fuan and Howard’s studios, and that’s where I started off. That, to me, is a very positive thing – that it has reached the point where I was asked to come in. Positive reinforcement, sort of thing.”

A few blocks south of Armenian Street, towards the rising tower of Komtar on Lebuh Melayu, is another studio space offered in support of artists. Rumah Studio, an artist’s collective comprised of Santana, The Sliz, Bibi Chun, IMMJN and Kangblabla, occupies a long, thin, one-storey shophouse. The proprietor, Mr. Tan, is also the owner of the Hin Bus Depot gallery, cementing his encouragement for George Town’s contemporary art scene. Rumah Studio’s artists are regular exhibitors at ‘the Hin’, and Mr. Tan’s support is one good example for sustainable conservation of artists living in George Town’s murky atmosphere of rising rental costs.

As a collective operating in one, large shophouse, the differences between each of the artist’s spaces are few and far between. Sliz’s work area is the first you chance upon when entering the cavernous interior, followed by Bibi’s in the back. Others flit between the ground floor and rooms on the first floor. Overall, the shophouse looks like one artist’s studio, the lines defining workstations blurred by mushrooming piles of artist clutter and knick-knacks.

Bibi and Sliz moved to Penang at the onset of Ernest’s murals in the beginning of 2012. Moving up from Kuala Lumpur and having a studio in Penang was a decision based on increasing their artistic freedom, more than anything else. For Sliz, the need for a space like theirs is more a personal requirement than a professional one. “For me, why I wanted this space was because it helps me do my own stuff. It’s not because we get more jobs – all my contacts are more in Kuala Lumpur. Here, I can do what want.”

It would be impossible to talk of this studio in parts compared to the strong sense of community it shares as a whole. As a result, their latest and grandest project has the Guinness Book of World Records in their sights as they attempt to paint the world’s largest mural on Komtar in George Town – their 230-meter effort dwarfing the current record of 70 meters. It is a project that had them drawing straws for who would paint the top.

More importantly, that strong sense of community even extends to studios themselves, and their relation to George Town’s art scene, its history and its people. Misunderstanding the piles of assorted collectables as junk would be to oversee what they represent – pieces of a city passing through time, and the discarded, bought or stolen left in its wake. All studios are linked, in one way or another, to George Town, and provide enduring roots to the city’s changes in the last seven years, as well as the wombs birthing the city’s art.

As I left Rumah Studio, Bibi handed me a small, coarse, white baby, recognisable from Chee Peng’s sculptures in his installation, ‘Series B’, but unfinished. “Do you recognise this?” Bibi said. “You know Chee Peng? This is his stolen piece. He was working opposite China House, rough cutting, and this got stolen. I bought it in a flea market.”

Originally published by The Edge, “By George” Edition, August 2017

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