“The artist is in the house,” said the affable young man, flashing a quiet smile, as he shook my hand and then ushered me into the exhibition hall.
I found out that he was Dennis Liew, and his paintings were on display at The Ledge art gallery in 1 Utama shopping centre, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, recently. Impressionism Inspired was his second solo exhibition, among many other exhibitions that he has participated in since 2010, both locally and abroad.
His mother and manager, Patricia Lim, was also present. In our chat, she shared that Liew began doodling and drawing from about the age of four.
At pre-school, he also loved to play with Lego blocks – and nothing else – and would be absorbed in making things with those little pieces. If the other children came near and took the Lego pieces from him, he would let them be, and go looking for other Lego sets to play with.
He hardly spoke, even when he entered Year One in primary school.
At first, doctors diagnosed him as dyslexic, but later said that he had Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning autism.
While his speech development was very slow and he was not academically inclined, he excelled in art, scoring a distinction for Art in the SPM examination.
KL-born Liew, 31, remembers the two pieces of artwork he did for the exam, like it was yesterday. One picture was of a type of pot known as kedi in Malay, and the other, of shoes on the steps of a kampung house.
After SPM, Liew pursued graphic design at Limkokwing University College, as it was known then, in a twinning programme with Curtin University, Australia.
“I had loads of friends there, and I learnt new things, for example, acrylic painting, which I later developed on my own,” said Liew, about his favourite memories of life at the university college.
“Designing typography and even finding ways of managing design works and creativity – these generated ideas for me.”
In his mind’s eye
He is happiest when he is painting, Liew says. In the past, before he got a full-time job, he would paint all day. “I paint to make myself happy,” he said.
But now that he is working – as a clerk in Gamuda Engineering – he paints mostly on weekends, about three to four hours each day.
For Liew, inspiration comes from various sources: God, his family, nature, music and even his own thoughts or imaginations.
“To be a great artist, you have to keep on painting … and people must like your work,” he says, matter-of-factly. Painting is his greatest passion, but not his only one.
“Legoworks is one of my favourites. I do a lot of ‘building’ sometimes. I also show them on Facebook,” he says.
He enjoys singing and playing games on his iPad as well.
Liew has travelled to many places, and he always loves to paint the scenery when he returns home.
“I like landscape paintings because it brings out the serenity and peace within the artist – me. Also, they remind me of the holidays I’ve gone on. For landscape paintings, I usually go to Japan, China or South Korea, to see the real naturescapes. Then I take photos of those places – and I paint from them,” said Liew.
He also paints from memory, by seeing a particular scenery in his mind’s eye. Sometimes, the music he listens to evokes memories and pictures of a certain place, as well.
His favourite art media are acrylic and oil because of the textures, brush strokes and styles he can create with them. One of his favourite works, Autumn At The Red Lake, is based on a place called Nikko in Japan. In this painting, he uses line strokes and very wet brush strokes.
“The reds, which I like to use, are rich in brush stroke textures,” he explained. “And I use colour washes to make it look like ripples during the rainy season.”
His paintings of the magnificent waterfalls – Kegon Falls and Shirataki Falls – were done in Chinese ink on rice paper.
Both waterfalls are located in Nikko, Japan. At 97m, Kegon Falls is one of the highest waterfalls in Japan, and it consists of one main waterfall and 12 smaller ones. “It falls from a very high mountain, from volcanic rock,” Liew explained.
He learnt the finer points of ink painting on rice paper from artist Chong Buck Tee.
Getting to the point
Another technique that Liew uses in his work is Pointillism. Most of the art pieces on display were done using this technique.
“A lot of dots work to form a picture,” he says.
“It usually involves a lot of spotting work, using different brushes to create small, medium, big and extremely large spots.
“If you look closely at any of the paintings done this way, you will see all the dots. But if you step back a few paces, you can see the whole picture; all the dots merge to form the entire painting.”
This writer found it quite fascinating, how the countless dots of myriad colours formed the bigger picture. The Pointillism technique worked very well in pictures of gardens and landscapes, and exuded a sense of joy and freedom. Whether his paintings depict nature, people, everyday things or architecture and street scenes, there is much beauty in each of them.
Liew has come a long way since his earliest diagnosis of Asperger’s. And he has always been aware that he is different from other people. Still, nothing has stopped him from reaching for the stars, and he aspires to become a famous artist like Dr Jolly Koh and Syed Ahmad Jamal.
“I think differently. I do things differently. Sometimes, I don’t sit still. But, although I am different, I have a purpose in life, and a dream to strive for,” he says.