Penangite Koh Teng Huat was a “Jack of all trades” until he unearthed his latent talent in art a decade ago. A latecomer in art, he nevertheless nurtured his talent.
Now a prominent artist, Koh, 56, is enjoying the fruits of his labour.
After he left school, Koh was a bit of a rolling stone where his career was concerned. He tackled several jobs – he was an insurance agent, journalist (with Guang Ming Daily and The China Press), sales representative, branch manager, newspaper agent and businessman.
Each time he changed jobs, he also moved to a different state. He worked for six years in Batu Pahat, two years in Kuala Lumpur, one year in Johor Baru and seven years in Ipoh. During those years, Koh did not get to see his children growing up; he missed his family. And, as the saying goes, absence (from home) made his heart grow fonder.
Then, one day a realisation struck him.
“I felt that it was time to return to my hometown Balik Pulau,” said the amiable
Koh, also known as Ah Koh to his friends.
Apparently, he wanted to balik kampung so that he could live a simple life and spend more time with his family.
Moreover, his parents were growing older.
Some 10 years back, Koh bumped into a group of visiting artists, and the course of his life was changed again.
Koh, whose alma mater was Han Chiang High School in George Town, Penang, left school after Form Six. His exposure to the art domain occurred by chance when he volunteered to be a tour guide to a group of visiting artists, some of whom were from Kuala Lumpur.
“In 2009, these artists came to paint in Balik Pulau, a small fishing village in Penang. They also wanted to enjoy the durians that this place is famous for,” he said.
“I used to love art when I was young but my family could not afford to send me to art college. I had to find work after leaving school,” said Koh, who is the seventh of 10 siblings.
When he mixed with the artists, Koh observed them painting with brushes and oil colours. He also talked to them and learned about painting techniques. Being with the artists ignited the passion for art in him.
“I thought to myself, I used to take art in school … I could paint, too,” he said.
When the artists left, they also left behind souvenirs for Koh: some oil colours, paint brushes and palette knives.
One fine day, an idle Koh decided to try his hand at painting.
“As I was still learning through trial and error about mixing oil colours, my first attempt resulted in colours that were yellow and ‘muddy’. The resultant artwork looked like a landslide,” he recalled with a laugh, adding that he has kept his first artwork.
Koh enjoys painting outdoors rather than in a studio. He has produced several series including scenes of Balik Pulau, such as fishing villages, padi fields, streetscapes of Penang, and local cultural festivals or events. Koh has also travelled all over Malaysia and to China, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, Europe and most recently New Zealand.
His 10th solo exhibition (in March), Serene Impressions featured 31 artworks based on the landscapes of his favourite place to paint, New Zealand. He produced paintings of Mt Cook, Lake Tekapo and Queenstown.
Koh was one of the artists featured in the book 310 Malaysian Artists (published in August 2015). His artworks have been sold in local auctions.
Recently, Koh received the Worldwide Excellence Award (WEA) in the Outstanding Achievement category. WEA is a prestigious international award that recognises successful figures from various fields, ranging from culture and arts, to sports and public welfare. Koh was honoured for his artistic and humanitarian contributions.
He said: “In the past five years, I donated more than 20 paintings to many schools, including those for special children and raised more than RM300,000 (for charity).”
In 2015, one of Koh‘s paintings was auctioned off for RM120,000 – the highest amount from the sale of a single painting in a charity auction, in Johor Baru.
Koh related: “The emcee, who was the Singaporean actor Marcus Chin, had pledged that if the painting could reach the targeted amount at the auction, both of us would take off our shirts as a way to thank the crowd. So when we raised that sum, we had to fulfil our promise.” The Chinese media ran the photographs of the two men with their shirts off on stage.
According to Tan Ee Lene, director and curator of The Art Gallery, Penang, which hosted Koh’s 10th solo art exhibition, his art career was influenced by his artist friends who shared their oil paints and brushes with him.
She said Koh chose palette-knife painting (impasto technique), as he enjoys the bold strokes and feels uninhibited using this medium. It also suits his character as he enjoys the freedom of the outdoors, and loves living in the countryside.
Tan said Koh’s hometown, Balik Pulau, is also known for its beautiful, unspoiled nature as well as its laksa and durian. It is a popular hideaway with artists seeking creative inspiration.
Travelling and painting
These days, wherever Koh travels, he also takes the opportunity to paint the landscapes. If he could, he would bring his easel and art materials along.
“I would sketch on the spot or take photos of a particular place for reference later, ” he said.
“If I climb to high altitudes, the easel would be too heavy to lug along. Moreover, I wouldn’t be able to stand in the freezing cold and paint for two hours,” said Koh. In such temperatures, he would just sketch the scenery, take photographs of it or observe the surroundings, then commit it to memory and later work on the paintings. In 2010, Koh founded the Balik Pulau Art Society and, a year later, he set up his own art studio in Pulau Betong, Balik Pulau.
Beginning last year, Koh has been travelling to Singapore every month. He is a resident artist of the art gallery, ArtSafe Pte Ltd.
Koh and the gallery owner, Ong Teng Huat, thought they were destined to meet. Said Koh: “Except for our surnames, we share the same names. In Chinese, both our names sound similar!”
When asked what he would be doing if he had not met the group of visiting artists, Koh said: “I can’t change history but when we crossed paths in my hometown, I think it’s fate at work.”
Returning to his hometown after the wandering years turned out to be the right decision for Koh as he has found happiness as an artist. On reflection, he said: “I have many friends. Art can help people and myself. I can also use my art to achieve meaningful goals, such as raising funds for charity and helping the needy.”
Koh’s exhibition, All In Penang, is ongoing until July 31 at G Art Gallery, G Hotel Gurney, Penang.