Spiritual high – StarMag Paper

Simplicity and contentment are states this artist aims to capture on canvas

PERHAPS it is fitting that a pharmacist turned painter has two surnames. Meet Ong Oh Hup Hoe.

“Hup Hoe means harmony,” the artist explains. “My immediate family members all have the Oh surname. But in Penang, they have certain traditions. I was also the godson of the Ong family, which wanted a male to carry on the surname. So my father put the surnames together to have peace between the two families.”

Just like his name, Ong Oh’s career is also an accord, between the sciences and creative arts.

Ong Oh Hup Hoe finds harmony in art and science, and hopes that viewers can feel joy and calm through his paintings.
“I was equally good in both science and arts. There were very few pharmacists in Malaysia then so it was easy to find jobs. (He was among Universiti Sains Malaysia’s pioneer batch of pharmacy students of 1972.) But I always loved the creative side and used to join the fine arts students at USM, where I first met the photographer-artist Ismail Hashim.

Ong Oh supported himself during his tertiary education by selling figurative paintings and drawings. “I used to roll them up and take them around to sell to lecturers and other people for about RM200 or RM300. It was big money then.”

The fecund environment on campus at that time helped to stoke the creative juices too.

“We used to pluck fruits from the trees and take them to lectures. People were more well-rounded in those days, and we enjoyed more of nature, as there less distractions And yes, we used to have parties every weekend.

In The Cycle, the artist suggests the rise and fall of civilisation.
“There were only 700 students on campus, and we knew everybody, even the canteen people and the sweepers. It was a very warm homely feeling, and that enhanced our learning capacity.”

Ong Oh pursued a life as a corporate pharmacist and marketing/management person, while doing occasional ac-hoc drawings and designs for magazines, before returning his artistic passion with a first solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in 2005.

“Money is important to maintain a certain standard of living,” he says. “But you come to a certain point when it is not the be-all and end-all. I find contentment and fulfilment in returning to painting. Hopefully my viewers can enjoy the same sense of calm and joy I feel in my paintings.”

His current exhibition, 7th Heaven, features oil paintings divided into seven panels. The artist’s statement goes: “In my dreams of dreams, my fantasies and reality seem to blend … the sight I saw was so vibrant, teeming with colours that were full of energy and yet remaining calm and soothing.”

Ong Oh explains: “Seventh heaven is an English expression, which is also reflected in Buddhism, about reaching the highest point in heaven. For me, it’s the pinnacle of artistic expression. I try to choose the best of all religions and absorb it. My perception of 7th Heaven is that as you reach a higher spiritual state, things get simpler. Yet simplicity and contentment are hard to attain.

“Normally in one painting you just express one idea and it’s a bit static. I like motion in my paintings – when you have seven panels, you can tell a longer story.”

For instance, his work, The Cycle, shows how humans first settle in a valley in the bottom panel, before houses are gradually built up. As the number of humans and houses increase with ascending panels, there are less trees and rocks, before everything climaxes in … desolation.

His 7th Heaven Series 4, 5 and 6 show clumps of trees divided into seven vertical slices, creating the effect of a multi-layered forest.

These works are being shown at Core Design Gallery, a boutique architectural design studio cum art gallery housed in a terrace house in Selangor. Part of the upper floor was demolished to provide a lovely sense of space. Like Ong Oh’s work, the gallery touts itself as a “blend of science and art”.

However, the artist’s house cum studio is at Island Glades, Penang.

“Painting in Penang is more conducive for me because it’s quieter. I used to live around Subang Jaya but there were too many distractions. When I paint I sometimes get lost for days in my work. When the inspiration hits, you feel like you just want to keep going.”

His first two exhibitions were a bit of a hodge-podge.

“I had just returned to art then and wanted to show every style I had. People who saw them might have thought they were group exhibitions! Now I choose to do one theme at a time.”

As for the future, he hopes to bring his art to the streets of Penang, “maybe set up some umbrellas and display a few works. I don’t want art to be exclusive.”

‘7th Heaven’ is on at Core Design Gallery, 87, Jalan SS15/2A Subang Jaya, Selangor. until Jan 31.

Viewing by appointment only; call 012-6117976 or email scar@coredesigngallery.com.


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