Musician and visual artist Mark Chan on staying inspired: “When I get tired of something, I let it go for a while and get my head around something else.”

When Mark Chan was a teenager, his father took away his drawing paper and paint brushes so he would focus on the sciences in school – the kind of pragmatic unilateral decisions parents sometimes make.

It was a blow to the visually-gifted Chan, who at nine years of age had already won a place to represent Singapore at the UNICEF Child Art Festival in 1968 in Mexico. He almost, in his own words, ”never recovered” from his father’s actions.

But the boy – who was also a garlanded swimmer, thanks to the same determined father – would grow up to pursue his artistic passions anyway, choosing music over visual arts as his main vocation.

He would master several musical genres and instruments, release eight solo albums, compose for megastars such as Tracy Huang and Andy Lau, score stage and screen productions – and become a household name by the 1990s.

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Despite the acclaim, Chan never lost his love for visual arts. And when he picked up Chinese calligraphy later in life in an attempt to improve his Mandarin, the sensation of ink on brush touching and soaking fragile rice paper created a cosmic alchemy of pleasure, inspiration and redemption.

It turned out that his visual gifts are as impressive as he and others had thought them to be over 45 years ago:After posting images of his paintings on Facebook, he attracted the praise of fellow artists and producers who suggested he hold an exhibition of his works.

This month, Chan is doing just that, showing over 60 works at the Jendela art space in the Esplanade, Singapore’s premier arts complex. Some of the pieces are quite stunning, displaying vivid melanges of fluid strokes expressing realistic and fantastical iconography. The works are priced from S$2,000 to S$9,000.

At 60, Chan will now be – as if his resume of ”firsts” isn’t long enough – the first person to have held a show at every performance and exhibition space in the Esplanade.

Why ink? What’s the allure?

I love the fact that when you apply ink on paper, you cannot change it. The mark stays there forever. It’s not like oil or acrylic paint; with oil or acrylic, you move the paint around; it’s part of the technique. But once ink hits paper, it’s permanent. Whatever you’ve done, you go with it. In a way, painting in ink is like performing music to a live audience: Once you’ve struck a note with your voice or musical instrument, it’s out there and you can’t take it back. You work with what you’ve done. Your performance is forever.

Mark Chan painting abstract swimming eye

One of Mark Chan’s abstract paintings, titled Abstract Swimming Eye. The painting will be on display as part of the Ink Mountain exhibition. Photo: Brian Gothong Tan

It sounds instinctive, meditative.

Like the microphone in music, I think of the paintbrush as an extension of my heart and mind. I don’t think about the process. I just get ready, and when the moment comes up, I go with it. It’s very immediate.

What’s the difference between creating music and visual art? Is one more collaborative than the other?

While it’s true that for big musical productions, you are working with other musicians and singers and the product might be somewhat different from how you initially envisioned it, I would say that the initial act of creating that piece of music or painting is somewhat similar. They’re both lonely activities – although somehow the loneliness is very different. When you think about it, music and painting are both abstract – there are no words. And I’ve learnt to be very comfortable expressing myself in the abstract. And I think that they do come from the same source… even if the discipline of painting appears physically different from recording something into a microphone or writing out stave notes.

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There are a lot of surreal and fantastical elements in your paintings. Birds, trees and volcanoes, among other things, rendered in abstraction. Where do they come from?

I have an enormous interest in mythology, and I think of it as spiritual and cultural ballast against the modern world. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of all mankind – more so now than when I first started reading about them in the 1970s. In secondary school, everyone was telling me to read F Scott Fitzgerald, EM Forster and other Western authors. But I looked in the mirror and didn’t see an angmo, so I decided that I didn’t really want to read so many books by white men – even if English is my first language. So I started reading Japanese, Chinese, African authors and so on in English translations. And my frequent travels around the world, and extended stays in cities like Paris, Bangkok and Shanghai fuelled that further. Going to Mexico at age nine and being confronted by the creation myths of the Olmec, Aztec and Maya peoples was formative. I realized the beauty of diversity in people’s faiths and beliefs. So these paintings reflect some of my longtime fascination with various histories, mythologies and creation stories.

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Over the course of some 30 years, you’ve created various genres of music, and now you’re holding a visual art exhibition. You’re also working on a fantasy novel that you’re close to finishing. Some people – be they artists or athletes or entrepreneurs – run out of drive and inspiration. But you seem to have found a wellspring.

I’m interested in many, many different things – not just various aspects of the arts, but also science and natural history. I enjoy David Attenborough documentaries, reading scientific publications, and so on. And so when I get tired of something, I let it go for a while and get my head around something else. And it works. It recharges you and makes you feel young again. I also don’t go out very much because it saps me of my energies. I should say that I’m something of a recluse and an introvert – a high-functioning introvert, of course, since I can sing in front of thousands – but an introvert nonetheless.

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Mark Chan’s exhibition runs from Jan 18 to Mar 31 at the Esplanade visual arts space Jendela.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: BT/SPH

This article is originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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