Arts News Singapore

Art What!: Striking a balance with Lester Lee in art and life

Lester Lee is an established artist who has worked hard to get to where he is today. Having trained under renowned watercolourists Ong Kim Seng and Peh Eng Seng in the ’80s, Lester then went on to win accolades such as the Outstanding Artist Award in 1989 from the Ministry of Communications and Information, alongside the UOB Painting of the Year competitions in 2011 and 2013, where he won the Highly Commended award and the Gold Award respectively.

The path of art is one that Lester has never looked back on, and even now, continues to pursue it, winning the 2022 UOB Painting of the Year Award (Established Artist Category) for his piece titled A Painting about Nothing and Everything, cementing his talent and appeal. “I really want to thank the people at UOB for continually promoting art around the region,” says Lester. “Winning this, it gives me assurance that I’m doing the ‘right’ thing, and gives me the confidence to push on and validation I appreciate.”

For Lester, A Painting about Nothing and Everything began with no preconceived idea or concept, and was brought to life when he spontaneously painted anything that came to his mind. This juxtaposition of images thus demonstrates the heart of slow living in a fast-paced world, where stillness and rest are hard to come by, with Lester hoping to have viewers learn to embrace a slower-paced life by living mindfully, being fully present and taking stock of what is truly important.

“While I usually have concepts and ideas for my work, this one was more spontaneous, as I was considering what to enter for the contest. And it came up a blank, and I thought, maybe it’s time to just unlearn everything I’ve been taught and rediscover my art in the process, leading to this want to capture the moment,” he explains.”And for me, the act of painting is an act of vulnerability, where I have this canvas in front of me and I just start and use my intuition. I’m glad it turned out well, and fulfilled my aim of reflecting my observations and feelings towards everyday life.”

“I think we have to learn how to take a step back, or cut back. That will probably create a condition for change within yourself, when you slow down and create space for yourself to get some clarity of the mind,” he says. “In my work, I really do want people to take a moment to look at ordinary things around us, and maybe get something out of it. You see how in the image there’s clothes, there’s plants, and it’s all these different ordinary things I see around the house. But they go beyond just things, they also hold memories and experiences, and it becomes almost this meditation to take stock amidst our fast-paced life.”

Lester Lee’s A Painting about Nothing and Everything, which won the 2022 UOB Painting of the Year Award (Established Artist Category)

Lester is a very self-assured man, mature in his speech and knowing exactly who he is. So it comes as no surprise that he takes criticism the same way. “I accept all kinds of criticism, but will filter out what is constructive criticism and what is not. You have to do that, because everyone always has so much to say, and you have to find a balance,” he says. “Some people are nasty, but it’s not up to you to decide what they say. So it’s about how you react and handle it instead. Of course, collectors’ opinions are important, since they’re the ones that buy your work, but again, it’s subjective, and you have to believe in your own talent and vision enough to keep going.”

Belief and faith in himself has been what keeps Lester going, along with a keen sense of balance and practicality. Not only is Lester an artist, but he is also an estate planner, and at times, a pilates instructor. “I’m very much influenced by Eastern philosophy, and that means balancing practicality and passion. I came from a poor background, and my goal was to ensure my family doesn’t suffer, and that I can put food on the table,” he adds. “Art is subjective, and I think it’s hard to survive as a full-time artist, because there’s no guarantee of making a steady income, especially with a wife and kids. At the same time, I don’t want to have to compromise my work just to survive. And that’s why I still have a day job and balance that with my art, along with my passion for fitness.”

While Lester might have multiple hats he wears, his passion for art remains strong, and he fully intends to continue developing himself in the years to come. “I identify as a multi-medium artist, and I do things from installations to sculptures, to more figurative work in recent years. I don’t like to repeat my work, so you can expect a change and evolution in style,” he says. “The aim remains the same though, not to deliver a message, but to just reflect the issues I see onto a canvas, and entice the viewer to ponder alongside me, or even start a conversation. It’s free to interpret, and that’s why I don’t stick to a specific medium.”

“And I like to think I’ve succeeded in that field. It’s a lot like how sometimes you do yoga and you enter this almost trance-like state, and friends have also told me about the effect art has on them sometimes, where it provokes thought. You don’t need qualifications to reflect on it or think about it, just base it on their own life experiences,” he continues. “There is so much going on, and nothing at the same time. This painting could mean nothing to you, but so much to someone else. My role is to keep on painting, to do what I’m doing and translate my thoughts about the present moment, random thoughts that give people an opportunity to see what I’m thinking, and know who I am.”

“Art is an experience. We can’t just pigeonhole artworks into simple descriptions or explanations. You can’t always be guided, and allow yourself to speak your mind about your own interpretation. And as an artist, hearing their responses gives me the opportunity to learn what goes through their heads.”

And as for the future of artists and advice he’d give youths? “If you have the passion, follow it and never give up. And that’s the simple truth. Most people are aware if they’re not good enough, and stop. And those that don’t, need to follow the passion, train more, and keep going,” he concludes. “For the rest of us, we don’t have to be artists, but we can at least expose ourselves and the next generation to it, and learn to experience it. You don’t have to embrace it, but it might surprise you regarding the kinds of journeys it’ll take you on.”

View the full gallery of winning UOB Paintings of the Year here You can also visit the UOB Metaverse Art Gallery. More information available here

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