Artist To Writer Dialogue Session, Cynthia Foong ~ Lee Seow Ser, written by artist Cynthia Foong

Cynthia Foong ~ Lee Seow Ser

Artist-To-Writer-Dialogue ~  Sunday, 20 June 2021, 1330-1430 hrs

Documentation by artist Cynthia Foong

I respect Seow Ser’s decision not to have our dialogue recorded.  It is her prerogative as the writer.  

The following is a documentation of my portion of the dialogue, during which I shared on what happened after I was assigned Seow Ser’s memoir and the progressive outcome of the art making process. 

On 26th May, Seow Ser and I had an awesome chat on the phone and we met at the exhibition on 28th May, one day before it ended.  Seow Ser felt we should take pictures together with my artwork ~ as she has shared, we had wonderful exchanges.  At the exhibition, Seow Ser suggested that I must have read her memoir a few times.  Yes, I certainly did. I can identify the four times that I have read her memoir.  They formed the process that eventually culminated in my artwork.

I did not rush to read her memoir.  In fact, I hesitated!  I feared the word “interpretation”, what if my “interpretation” offend or upset the writer.  I decided I will not attempt to “interpret” her memoir, I am in no position to interpret something so personal.  My artwork would be my response to her memoir.  

The first time I read it ~ once I started reading I couldn’t stop, I wanted to know what’s next, like being sucked into an engaging short story.  Being a very visual person, I tried to picture everything Seow Ser described, at first the physical and tangible pleasant stuff, then came the second part, health concerns.  I would liken it to someone kayaking smoothly along a beautiful stream amidst serene surroundings, then without warning the paddler finds himself at the water edge at the top of a waterfall, followed by the sudden plunge into that deep pool below, he struggles to get back up to the water surface, so that he can breathe normally again.  That first read was a very strong and emotional experience for me.  Wow!  I felt overwhelmed!  

(p.s. I went through a personal crisis…a simple medical consultation ended up with immediate hospitalisation (I broke into cold sweat, shivered, my lips quivered when i spoke – I was in shock), being wheeled off for urgent MRI, traction, laying down on the cold steel operating table awaiting surgery, everything happened within a few days. To cut a long strong short, it was not an illness, it was a freak accident ~ a sneeze resulted in a slipped disc that was causing excruciating pain.  The internal injury, if left untreated, could have rendered me paralysed from the neck down.)  

A few days went by before I read the memoir a second time.  The experience was entirely different.  The six pages are packed with so much information and I spent longer time to finish reading it.  I began to appreciate how well written the memoir is.  In that one sitting I actually re-read some paragraphs.  I savoured the style of writing and the flow that brought me along a learning journey.  It was somewhat like the trip I took driving at the French Alps, not only did I make frequent stops along the way, but I found myself walking back and forth at certain spots just to soak in the breathtaking views.  I wished i could write that well.  I was impressed!

During my third read, I paused often, paid attention to the details…the nearby sand and sea (I attended Tanjong Katong Girls’ School which was once so close to the SeaView Hotel and the beach), the soups and the ingredients sounded so familiar (Seow Ser shared that like me, she has Cantonese roots too, no wonder!), frangipani (pink?), unripe mangoes, old rattan chair in the private garden, medical treatments, the dressing of wounds, the monstrous allergy. This time I gained further insight and pondered.  What struck me deep and powerful is the very close relationship she has with her family.  I admired her courage and strength to take charge of the situation.  Seow Ser shared that she too had struggles.  

Somehow, this third read made me think of my late mother and our close relationship. Suddenly,

  • I wanted to write my own memoir: but how and where should I start?
  • I googled to find out what characteristics qualify a memoir.
  • I began to write my own “site based” memoir.
  • I drew sketches of the location from vivid memory.
  • I did a sketch of an installation art piece to go with my memoir.
  • I started creating a proto-type piece for the installation artwork, combining knitting and crochet.
  • I edited my memoir many times as new details flooded back. 

I was pre-occupied with my own memoir and the artwork. 

Did I digress?  Absolutely not, it was part of the art making process.  I was inspired!

At some point, I have to get started with the artwork and get it ready for the exhibition.  After those few crazy days, I “boomeranged” to Seow Ser’s memoir for my fourth read.  Her home has been her sanctuary during good and trying times.  (When I was a kid, I had two sanctuaries: one was at the base of a coconut tree from where i watched neighbourhood kids play, the other was the dark space behind a door at home where I would retreat to whenever I was unhappy.)  As I have said, my artwork would be my response to her memoir.  I intended for my artwork to be simple, something that exudes comfort, calm, peace, it should induce a feeling of quiet time for oneself.  What about the ups & downs in life? hence, the creation of two back-to-back swing chairs: one with white refine twine symbolising smooth sailing life, the other with raw jute string which thickness varies throughout, signifying life can be an undulating path.  Life events do not pan out in blocks consecutively.  Often times a string of situations can be occurring concurrently ~ this observation motivated me to create the symbolic two-layer jute string piece.  The ends were weaved into knots to resemble the symbol for DNA to depict familial relationships.  All these elements have to be expressed within the space of the pod, which cannot accommodate a normal size hammock.  Next, to create miniatures of what I have in mind, I have to recalculate, in order to avoid/minimise wastage of materials.  For both swing chairs, I had to undo midway and redo, adding more strands because I was not happy with what I saw, similar to a writer editing a write-up.  The bulk of the weaving was often done between 11pm and 3am, 4am, 5am, the timing and duration varied on different nights.  That afforded me peaceful quiet time. 

Seow Ser has expressed the word “sanctuary” four times in her memoir.  No word is more apt than “sanctuary” as the title for my artwork. It is direct and uncomplicated.  On the day of setting up, laying the sand layer by layer was meditative for me (XiaoYun teased that it was like making “ming-chang-kueh” but the sandy snack was inedible.  She took a video which she intends to make into a time-lapse clip ~ work-in-progress at the time of dialogue and has since been completed).  The weaving of the miniature swing chairs, crocheting of the yarn seashells, writing my own memoir, the collection-sieving-and-laying of the sand (the sand has been returned to the beach after the exhibition) ~ this whole art making process has been a different and meaningful experience for me.  Viola! my installation artwork is complete!

In conclusion, not only is this installation artwork my response, it is my homage to Seow Ser for her touching and inspiring memoir.  My best wishes to her. 

Cynthia Foong artwork, Sanctuary

Categories: Art exhibition

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