AFT speaks to Malaysian-Australian artist Kenneth W.H. Lee about his third solo art show, “Introspection III”.
AFT: Tell us about your environment while growing up.
I come from a family of six with “por-por” my mother’s mom. I’m the eldest of three and have two other siblings. We grew up in a small sleepy town of Banting in Selangor (I was born in the famous Klang town, known for its culinary delights). My parents were both secondary teachers; Mom taught English and Art and Dad taught PE and Art, so the artistic lineage was unavoidable and pre-determined. Mom tells me she noticed my bold strokes at age two with an Artliner pen. I had a happy, care-free childhood playing in the dirt (catching fish in drains and climbing guava trees) after school till dusk and I remember being yelled at to get home for dinner!Kenneth WH Lee
AFT: What do you think influenced your artistic eye?
My parents clearly gave me that early exposure in appreciating the finer points in art and understanding the basics of drawing and painting – with that early knowledge I loved experimenting in my own way, breaking the rules along the way as much as I dared, whilst paying homage to the greats. I soaked up (art) like a sponge going through drawing and sketching teaching books and journals, learning as much I could myself. My parents took to me art galleries, and we would walk through museums of art. I first experienced the body of work by professionals like the late (Malaysian artist), Ibrahim Hussein. His art show is stuck in my mind – I was probably 10 then. The great French artists in the Impressionist (and Fauvism) movement really caught my imagination and left an everlasting mark. We migrated to Sydney when I was 18, and I studied art in high school, learning European art literature and was really drawn to the late Brett Whiteley’s work.Kenneth WH Lee
AFT: Which piece of work have you recently submitted for a competition or auction and why?
I submitted artworks for both for the Archibald (a prestigious Australian portrait art prize administered by the Art Gallery of NSW) and a landscape piece for the Wynne prize (one of Australia’s longest-running art prizes for landscape painting or figure sculpture).
For the Archibald, I submitted a portrait in oils of an amazing gentleman and aboriginal leader, Uncle Charles “Chicka” Madden of Alexandria, NSW and a large abstract piece for the Wynne prize titled “Sydney Spring – Gratitude Series II” measuring 1200 x 1200 x 35 mm in oils/acrylics/charcoal/pastels/ on canvas. They unfortunately didn’t make the finals. It’s the second consecutive year of submissions in both the above Prizes after 25 years of shying away from any art competition.
For one, I gave up painting for those number of years to focus on my finance/asset/funds management career in Australia and South East Asia and I didn’t find the need to receive external validation for my art. Now, staying relevant and visible by putting out content is part of being a professional artist.
I recently donated a portrait piece of St. Charbel, the patron saint of Lebanon for a fundraising event held in conjunction with Steps of Hope and Madison Marcus law firm. I’m pleased that raised A$26,000 in a blacktie function to help with relief work for the victims of the Lebanon port blast in August 2020.Kenneth WH Lee
AFT: Did you paint during COVID19? What did you do to pass time?
Yes, I painted during Covid-19 lockdowns. I completed art works for the Archibald and Wynne Prizes submissions in 2020. I continued to work at frenzied pace to build a new body of work as I planned towards my third solo exhibition titled “Introspection III” – an aptly named show in current times of needing to be more reflective taking stock of where we are as a human race and more importantly individually in our own personal journeys and awakening – our passions, dreams and who we stand for, next to our loved ones. During this time I was also actively creating works for charity fundraising for the likes of the CMRI Children’s Medical Research Institute for research into cures for all sorts of serious illnesses children suffer early in their lives. I also supported the Jeans4Genes cause by painting a portrait of singer Guy Sebastian utilising his donated signed jeans as part of the collage-portraiture. That item went on an online auction. A painting of St Charbel, patron Saint of Lebanon, was also donated toward fundraising for the good people recovering from the unfortunate disaster and with the onset of winter then. I’m about to start on portraits of the three Abdallah children and their cousin to be gifted to the family to help ease the pain and to remember their young lives taken away at such young age in that freak Oatlands accident by a drunken driver with his passenger both intoxicated while the kids were walking for ice creams around corner from their home. I don’t get to spend time with my kids during their school holidays but at least I get to do something for someone else.Kenneth WH Lee
AFT: What is the one thing you strive to do with your art? Have you been successful?
I love combining impressionist style with abstract designs – whether it be a large landscape or a portrait. I love both forms of art on its own but combining them is challenging and satisfying – and I think I have been successful with the outcomes. I love to constantly challenge myself to paint something new, something I hadn’t done before. I’m excited that my art designs are now being sold and licensed as lifestyle products in Australia. Also American and New Zealand online wall art companies are selling and promoting my images/copies reprinted on canvas and shipped around the world.Kenneth WH Lee
AFT: Is there any work that you have not finished or can’t complete? What happens then?
I have had pieces of work that had taken years (up to five years) to complete as the initial stages did not show potential and I lost interest in it and moved on to other newer pieces. Whilst the earlier pieces sat unloved, I hadn’t forgotten about it – still constantly pondering its future and design input. Or a complete design change and direction to revamp the entire piece. Sometimes midway I find no inspiration to sit or stand in front of a piece and continue painting. I would walk past it without a thought lacking the need to touch it. Then an idea would pop in my head (or sometimes a memory from a relationship whether in a happy mood or post-breakup in complete despair) and I will dive into that piece non-stop for hours to complete it. It’s all about the flow and feel at that point in time – sometimes it comes to me and sometimes its empty. So I have to be patient and tune in to what I am really creating. At times when I paint, its akin to having a conversation with a person or persons. The deeper the feeling and intensity of the conversation in my head the more interesting the piece becomes. I somehow can translate raw emotion at a particular time and pour it onto the canvas – its like a life diary of emotions coloured by paint.Kenneth WH Lee
AFT: Is health and fitness important to you as an artist? Tell us about your daily routine…
Yes, health and fitness is key to me as an artist. Though I love to work late at nights when it is really quiet and paint for hours till the wee hours of dawn sometimes….I know to catch up on my sleep and rest which is key to wellbeing. I am a diehard foodie too and love to cook my favourite foods – usually traditional Malaysian hawker dishes and spicy dishes. I then balance this with great bowls of greens making wonderful salads, blended fruit juices and hydrate well. I do some iron work in the backyard with some weights and a punching bag and then go for a walk around the neighbourhood. Though I’ve given up badminton for over 20 years, I’ve recently joined a badminton club to get my heart rate going and burn off some calories. Its been fun getting back to the game that I used to love and was great at, having been a state representative for the Federal Territory as a school boy in Malaysia and later as an All-Australian Universities rep.Kenneth WH Lee
AFT: What’s your ultimate favourite thing to do?
It would be hard to go past having an Italian coffee in hand and having the morning free to start on a large empty wooden panel or canvas, in beginning a new piece of abstract or an impressionist landscape work. It could also be the excitement and anticipation of continuing on a large piece, progressing with developing textures, depth and tonal values – it’s always a mindful challenge in solving the piece’s balance in design and colour and its imbalance… the statement that one is trying to convey. Usually I work very fast when an idea is born, my hands move the brushes and palette knives at a frantic pace across the white spaces then I’d spend more hours pondering and analysing the piece midway, tweaking it as I go – I find at different natural lighting the look and feel changes and my mood flows with it and I paint accordingly. I get inspired again when that look and feel hits me, and I will be hitting the canvas hard and fast frantically until I am exhausted.Kenneth WH Lee
“Immerse in Art”: Art Talk by Kenneth WH Lee
This event will be held online on 10th July 2021 from 1:00-3:00pm (SYD/AEST/+10GMT).
Only RSVP if you wish to attend the live event.
“Introspection III” solo art exhibition is on display at Sydney Haymarket’s Bendigo Community Bank’s branch at Darling Square 11 Little Pier St Shop NE12 until 30 August 2021.
Team AFT thanks the artist Kenneth WH Lee, his management at ArtSHINE and exhibition venue sponsor Bendigo Community Bank for this interview.
Who is Kenneth WH Lee?
Malaysian-born Kenneth has exhibited twice in his Sydney Solo Shows “Interiority Of My Introspection I & II” in late 2019. On the commercial front, he works on private client commissions, consults on client fine art needs pre- and post-renovation, paints for charity art auctions and family portraits like the St Charbel portrait painted for Lebanon’s Blast victims/families and Guy Sebastian portrait utilising his custom signed jeans in fundraising for the CMRI Children’s Medical Research Institute – Westmead Children’s Hospital / Jeans4Genes. KWHLEE art designs are also available via its e-commerce shop for consumer retail and B2B wholesale.
Kenneth W H Lee is a represented artist managed by ArtSHINE.
Follow his Instagram account to view current artworks: @kennethwhlee.