Having painted casually all his life, 80-year old Johnny Wong decided to pick up the brush and dive into his passion full-time after his retirement as a primary school teacher. Mr Wong, in a sense, could be considered as an ‘outsider’ to the art world for his approach to painting but he has never given up his passion and remained hardworking.
Five years after his retirement, Mr Wong finally celebrated his first solo exhibition at the Coda Culture gallery, showcasing his abstract paintings made on recycled advertising foam boards he gets from his neighbourhood community centre. Mr Wong’s choice of foam board over canvas is his way of doing a little something for the environment, he says, even if he has to spent that extra effort with the material.
Not confined to just abstract art, Mr Wong also dabbles in nature and figuration, inspired by everything from sambar deer sightings at Lornie Road to the Trump-Kim Summit in 2018.
When asked what got him into painting, Mr Wong says there was nothing in particular. It was just something he did in art class and at home after completing his homework, a means to de-stress. It was an ‘ongoing interest’ in his life.
Mr Wong said that sometimes people would see his art and tell him that they like it. They’ll ask if they can have it and he’ll happily just give them away for free. Throughout the interview, Mr Wong repeated this sentiment that art and knowledge of art is meant to be shared as widely as possible, and freely.
He went on to talk about how he was always working on his art, always learning and exploring. Mr Wong shared a story about how one day he was walking around the villages in Upper Changi with a student of his to sketch when he noticed that the young man’s sketch didn’t look anything like the views in front of them. The boy has said to Mr Wong, “you have to be creative”, explaining that the he draws what he likes, not limited to just what he can see.
“A student telling me ‘you have to be creative’,” said Mr Wong. “I was glad I had a student like that and he influenced me, a young boy influenced me”.
Mr Wong fondly remembered the boy telling him that if he wanted to recreate exactly what he saw then he might as well use a camera to take a photo.
The 80-year old is as generous with his art as he is open to learning from just about anyone. His drive to create and learn is palpable, especially when he talks about going to the library to use his free 1-hour internet access for seniors to learn as much as he can about the great artists like Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Michael Angelo.
For an artist who has largely learnt his skills, the internet is a gold mine of knowledge and inspiration via youtube videos and articles. Mr Wong said he resonated most with Van Gogh’s story – the artist only sold one painting when he was alive but is now one of the most celebrated painters of his time.
“That stirred my interest. If people don’t appreciate, it doesn’t matter,” said Mr Wong.
He talks then about how his family isn’t all that supportive of his passion, his wife having thrown out his paintings that were taking up space. She also couldn’t understand his pursuit of a passion that wasn’t earning him any money.
“Had my family supports my art, maybe I would have done much better or maybe not at all. Maybe because of my wife, she has inspired me to work harder”.
Right now, Mr Wong works on his paintings at the home of a person who volunteered their space for him.
The octogenarian shows no signs of slowing down, though. He says painting is a way to keep himself occupied. “To prevent dementia,” he adds with a giggle. Mr Wong hopes to inspire young and old Singaporeans to get into art, to learn to appreciate abstract art. He wants them to know that they too can be self-taught artists – you don’t need to take classes to learn how to paint.
Mr Wong added that painting isn’t about earning money, it about enjoyment and relaxation. He agrees with the description that what he’s doing is ‘active ageing’. He says having an exhibition of his art only serves to spur him on to create even more, adding that he hopes this spark of passion will continue to burn till the end of his life.