Endearing picture book tells the inspiring story of the late Lee Wen.
The death of pioneering artist Lee Wen in 2019 sent a wave of grief across the local visual arts scene, with artists, curators and friends mourning the loss of one of our most prominent artistic figures, known for his Yellow Man series, and his uncanny yet striking performance art works.
In the latest of Epigram Books’ Prominent Singaporeans series, Lee Wen then takes the spotlight, with his story chronicled by Chan Li Shan and illustrated by Weng Pixin. The story begins simply enough – with Lee Wen’s life as a child at home, choosing to bury himself in artistic expression, reading books about great foreign artists and attempting to mimic them or create his own works of art.
One thing that’s common across almost every page – despite those surrounding him finding his behaviour thoroughly strange, he paid them no mind, and did precisely what he wanted in the name of self-expression. Regardless of whether it was in the way of music or poetry, painting or performance art, there was passion behind his craft, and a genuine desire to show the world who he was.
Despite its relatively short length, Chan Li Shan manages to select the most pertinent moments of Lee Wen’s life, and words them in a way that will appeal to readers of all ages. From leaving his bank job to pursue his studies at art school, to his experiences in London to meeting his wife in Japan, fellow artist Satoko Sukenari, each page is succinct but distinct in its depiction of Lee Wen. Chan even manages to mark each milestone in his life with one of Lee’s artworks, from his Yellow Man series, where he expressed how it felt to be perceived by foreigners in London by painting himself yellow and walking in public, to his Ping-Pong Go Round, an unusual ping pong table that encourages strangers to casually interact by playing with each other. Even National Gallery Singapore’s Small Big Dreamers Children’s Festival gets a mention towards the end of the book, showing how Lee Wen’s impact extends to even the kids of today.
We’ve previously sung praises for Weng Pixin’s Let’s Not Talk Anymore, and the illustrator applies a similar style here to depict scenes from Lee Wen’s life. Once again, she delivers on the artwork with richly textured sets, simple yet expressive faces, and a keen selection of colours make each page pop, and every scene layered with brushstrokes and shades. There are some interesting perspectives Weng uses for her art as well – in a gallery in London, the visitors are dwarfed by the large European paintings, and it’s a testament to her skill how in spite of the apparent similarity in her character designs, you can still tell the difference in their personalities and race through face shape, hairstyles and colour alone. Even little details, like tiny splotches of paint on Lee Wen’s pants, to the fairly accurate London police uniform, make each page a delight to turn to.
With Yellow Man, Chan Li Shan and Weng Pixin have crafted an inspiring and educational book that captures Lee Wen’s rich life while delivering a simple message – it’s ok to be different, and you should express yourself in a way you feel best suits you. And most of all – anyone can be an artist, once you realise performance art can be created anytime with anything.
Recommended for: Younger readers who have yet to discover the simple beauty of Yellow Man, and parents who want them to understand the value of art and self-expression.