Remembering Mr Lee - in portraits

Remembering Mr Lee - in portraits
Type-paint artist Ricky Goh with his portrait of Mr Lee Kuan Yew – done using the various keys of a typewriter to emboss and over-type to create the image. The piece was the first that he typed onto canvas rather than art paper.

RENOWNED American artist Marion Pike painted portraits of the likes of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Coco Chanel.

But one of her "favourite" reviews was given by Singapore's first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and he did not even sit for his portrait.

In an exclusive e-mail interview with The Straits Times, the late artist's daughter Jeffie Pike Durham, 74, said: "To her delight, when Mr Lee saw the finished painting, he said 'It seems that you may have left something here' - or very modest words to that effect.

"Apparently, custom dictated that he not give praise, which could be seen as self-aggrandising, but he did want her to know that in his opinion... she had created something of value.

"My mother never tired of quoting this remark - perhaps her favourite review, ever, of her work."

Ms Pike, who died aged 84 in 1998, was luckier than some artists as she got to study Mr Lee in person.

Singaporean type-paint artist Ricky Goh, 61 - whose pioneering works were produced using the keys of a 1970s Olympia typewriter to emboss and over-type to create the image - observed Mr Lee only through photographs and on television.

Goh's work was submitted for the National Museum Art Gallery exhibition in 1977, but was declined for display for the same reason that Pike's piece was not displayed in 1982 - Mr Lee did not want his pictures displayed during his lifetime.

Goh, however, remains proud of his 46cm by 36cm work, which was the first he typed onto canvas rather than art paper.

He hopes to go public with the portrait and for an exhibition "by appointment only for those who are interested to take a close look at all of my personal type-painting creations".

Some of his creations can be seen on his blog

"A portrait is about bringing out the very essence of the man, not about his likeness," said Goh, whose other works include images of former world leaders such as US president Richard Nixon, Indonesian president Suharto and Singapore president Benjamin Sheares.

He said: "I would study their various profiles from newspaper clippings and in motion whenever they appeared in newsreels on TV, before I worked on the portraits."

Ms Durham told how her mother got along with Mr Lee during her time in Singapore.

"Despite the agreement that he not 'sit' for his portrait, they saw one another for conversations, walks and meals during her stay there," she said.

"They made a personal connection, such that the prime minister embarked upon a correspondence. My mother often spoke to me about these letters, received after she returned to Paris, as she considered them among her greatest treasures.

"My mother did her best work by always making a personal connection to her subject.

"She was not an artist who could do a portrait from a photo - she had to have contact with the sitter."

When she painted conductor Zubin Mehta for the Los Angeles Music Centre, she went to rehearsals daily and did many sketches of him leading the orchestra - the same way she observed Mr Lee at work.

The National Heritage Board says the painting is part of the National Collection and it is looking into what to do with it.

Ms Durham said: "I remember my mother telling me that after travelling the world - meeting, doing portraits and often befriending everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Pope John Paul 11 and Zubin Mehta - Lee Kuan Yew was the most brilliant man she'd ever met.

"In the case of Lee Kuan Yew, I imagine that she received tutorials.

"His political views and amazing success story surely had great impact on her.

"In sum, she left Singapore in awe - a lifelong fan of Mr Lee."


This article was first published on May 9, 2015.
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