SINGAPORE: It was a dream come true, 40 years in the making – and Sim Kah Lim had the right man to share it with, making the momentous event all the more poignant.
In the 1970s, visual artist Choo Keng Kwang took a young boy of 10 who was painting scenes of the Singapore River under his wing, giving the budding artist tips.
That boy, however, disappeared from public view, his dream of becoming an artist unfulfilled.
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and, for over three decades, has been warded in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), where he has painted the Singapore he remembered from behind its walls.
READ AND WATCH: In a mental ward for nearly 35 years, he paints old Singapore from memory - and he dreams
But bit by bit, his extraordinary works gained notice, and this month, he took another step towards realising his long-awaited dream, with an exhibition of some 30 pieces of his works.
And on Thursday, for the first time in four decades, mentor and former student met – and fell into that old relationship, almost as if no time had passed at all.
“Do you still draw, teacher?” Mr Sim, 50, asked shyly in Mandarin.
“Do I look like I can?” Mr Choo, 87, replied with a smile from his wheelchair. He is one of Singapore's first-generation artists, best known for his oil paintings, which can command six-figure sums.
And after all these years, he remains a hero to the younger man, who remembers his rendition of pigeons and the Singapore River.
The surprise meeting was organised by Goshen Art Gallery, where the exhibition-cum-sale of Mr Sim’s pieces – some never before seen in public – is on until the end of the month.
This comes on the heels of his first – and smaller – art display in July, which was for an exhibition highlighting the importance of mental health, organised by Temasek's staff-driven volunteer initiative T-Touch.
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
Mr Sim had always dreamt of showcasing – and selling – his art. But as people milled about Goshen’s showroom, his attention was focused only on his mentor as Mr Choo pored over his paintings and gave him advice.
He should “relax his brush strokes” and not clutter the backgrounds of his paintings. “To be an artist, one shouldn’t be in a rush,” Mr Choo said as his ward hung on to his every word.
He even compared Mr Sim’s tense style to tormented Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, who had been confined to a French asylum and, similar to Mr Sim, spent many days painting in the asylum gardens.
Mr Sim’s sister, Cindy, recalled how her brother showed promise as a painter since very young, and their father took him frequently to the Singapore River to practise.
Some of the eminent local artists there every Sunday were Mr Choo, Mr Ong Kim Seng and the late Ong Chye Cho.
“He was there the whole day. He had no one at home to learn (painting) from, so he went to the Singapore River to look for (them),” said Ms Sim.
She added that he often spoke of Mr Choo as a talented artist who was willing to share his knowledge.
Goshen showcases Mr Choo’s pieces regularly and hopes to do the same for Mr Sim, whose paintings on show are mostly of the historical Singapore River, Victoria Memorial Hall and open-air markets of Chinatown.
The art gallery’s co-founder Faith Lum-Yu said the exhibition was to fulfil Mr Sim’s dream and help him reintegrate into society.
His works are selling for between S$1,500 and S$7,600, and part of the proceeds will go towards the gallery’s social enterprise ArtSE, which provides employment for individuals with special needs, especially artists.
Ms Lum-Yu had earlier offered him a job with ArtSE and, together with his sister, is working with the IMH on this possibility.
Mr Sim's exhibition is on until Sept 30, from 11am to 8pm, at 7 Fraser Street, #01-04, S(189356). Or for more details, email Ms Lum-Yu at Faith@artse.sg / Shan@goshenartgallery.com