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The Art Journey Of A Singaporean Wildlife Artist

One of the most delightful life lessons I learned as an artist is that I can share my dreams with God and He is willing to fulfil them; in my case, about 30 years later and in ways I could never imagine.

As a youngster, I always doodled planes and cars on any piece of paper I laid my hands on, including school text books. But it was painting birds and animals that captured my passion for painting in the later part of my life.

One of the most delightful life lessons I learned as an artist is that I can share my dreams with God and He is willing to fulfil them; in my case, about 30 years later and in ways I could never imagine.

I became a Christian when I was a student at Bartley Secondary School. After my `O’ levels, I wanted to enrol in an art institution where I could learn to create fine art and develop into a professional artist but opportunities were not available then. Instead, I studied Production Engineering at the Singapore Polytechnic and very soon I discovered that it was not a good fit for me. I felt embarrassed about my poor results and at times, I asked God why He led me into engineering school when He knew I could not excel in this field. It was only later in life that I saw God’s wisdom in allowing me to walk this journey.

After graduation and completing serving in National Service, I started a career in Learning and Development which spanned 33 years. It was in this career pathway that I learned precious lessons about myself and the need to depend on God for everything. I realised that I needed essential life skills, especially problem-solving and perseverance. I also learnt to navigate the complexity of the business world and office relationships by acquiring people skills. I do believe that God was developing me into a well-rounded and mature individual.

I was retrenched while working as an instructional designer in an e-learning company. This came immediately after the catastrophic 9/11 World Trade Center attacks in the US. Many tech-related companies were badly hit due to the global economic uncertainty. Instead of looking for the next job which was probably non-existent, I enrolled for a degree in the Fine Arts offered by Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. I was thankful to God that my paltry portfolio of artworks was accepted.

As it was a liberal arts programme, we had to read papers written by western philosophers and use those thoughts to generate new art forms that would be thought-provoking for viewers. During my studies, I quickly saw the dark side of this Post-modern art world and began to understand the reason God delayed my education in the art world.

Numerous writings by these philosophers were thought-provoking but narcissistic, anti-God, anti-authority and negated the biblical world view. I remember vividly reading a paper entitled “God is dead”, written in 1882 by Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher. To me, they seem to glorify hedonistic and sinful living. When I attended Postmodern visual art exhibitions by local contemporary artists, I was appalled to see many vulgar images; disguised as modern aesthetics, and designed to grab attention by shocking the viewers. I found these profoundly disturbing and could never see any beauty in them. I decided there and then to steer away from Postmodernism art after graduation in 2004.

I believe God also knew that I would not last very long in my art journey had I started too early. Being an introvert and immature young person, I lacked resourcefulness. I would not know how or where to get help whenever I encountered work difficulties. Many career artists in Singapore I met, had to hold down two or even three jobs just to survive. Many had given up on art as a career and I knew I would be a casualty too. I truly give thanks to God for His goodness in closing this door early in my life and only opening it when I was a mature individual.

After graduation from art school, I continued my career in the Learning and Development field as economic conditions improved. I took this opportunity to attend art workshops to improve my painting skills and develop my wildlife art portfolio. I also waited upon God to show me the right time to switch careers and this came about in 2015. By that time, I had built up a body of work in avian art, with sufficient financial savings, and gained support from my family, to launch out as a full-time wildlife artist.

One major inspiration that launched my pursuit of wildlife paintings came from the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings collection, which I regularly visited at Singapore National Museum about 30 years ago. I was intrigued by the way the artists painted the wildlife of ancient Singapore with great details, especially the birds. This exhibition stirred me to create my own series of works to showcase the beauty of local birds.

(Please see my 5 examples in the appendix). This genre is missing in our art scene. I want to challenge myself to create a new market here. I take inspiration from the American master artist John James Audubon, who created this art market in North America and Europe. He was credited for making a complete pictorial record of all the bird species of North America.

Even the bible scholar John Stott was fascinated with birds and travelled the world to observe and photograph birds. From his observations of bird behaviours, he could draw out object lessons for Christians and our need to depend on God our creator. In his book `The Birds Our Teachers’ he wrote, `The first lesson that birds can teach us is faith, that is, to trust God in all things, to trust Him for the supply of everything we need.’ I too have used bird behaviours as object lessons when I teach bible lessons in Sunday school.

The first lesson that birds can teach us is faith, that is, to trust God in all things, to trust Him for the supply of everything we need.

One unique feature of my paintings is my signature. Instead of signing off my name, I sign off with the adjective `Thankful.’ It reflects my attitude and philosophy in life, i.e. to be always thankful to God in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5: 18). When people viewing my art ask about my signature, I will tell them three things - that I am thankful to God for the free gift of salvation through Jesus; thankful to God for His lovely creation that inspires me to create wildlife art and thankful to God for giving me the ability to draw and paint well.

I had my first solo wildlife art exhibition in 2017 at The Substation at Armenian Street and my second solo exhibition in 2022 at the Visual Arts Centre at Penang Road. Many of my paintings have been sold and are now found in private collections in Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. I have also received several commissions to paint birds. A major milestone of my art journey was my artwork being exhibited at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. I find great satisfaction in knowing that my artworks have attained a level of excellence in the genre of wildlife art and have contributed to the Natural History scene in Singapore.

As I reflect on my art journey, I thank God for fulfilling my dream to be a successful artist. I believe God’s timing for me is always the best because He knows me well, especially my strengths and weaknesses. He is a dear Heavenly Father who knows how to develop His children to their fullest potential. I am always passionate to share with young artist friends about my art journey with God who guides me faithfully.

Thong Chow Ngian has a twin brother who is four minutes older. Currently, he is serving as a Cell leader and Sunday school teacher with more than 20 years in each ministry. He has participated in several short-term mission trips with RiverLife church. One of the most memorable trips was becoming a soccer coach for a Sports camp at Hyderabad in India for underprivileged children. These kids came from all over India to learn to play soccer for the boys and netball for the girls. His knowledge of nature and bird behaviours has allowed him to use them as object lessons for teaching biblical truths and sharing the gospel with these children.


Appendix of Art pieces explaining THE UNIQUE BIRD BEHAVIOURS

Homeward Bound

This painting depicts the extravagant beauty of birds created by God. The subject is a Great egret, a migratory bird that uses Singapore as a transit point before returning to its breeding ground in north Asia. It is preening its breeding plumage to maintain it in good condition so that it can easily attract a mate upon returning to its home country.

Scanning The Terrain

This painting depicts the perseverance of a migratory bird. The subject is a Chestnut-winged cuckoo. It originates from the Himalaya region and flies over many countries to escape the winter and stops in Singapore to recharge and replenish its energy by feeding on local insects and caterpillars. This annual journey is very long, arduous, and dangerous but the bird is still able to navigate accurately to its desired pit stops.

Insatiable Hunger

This painting depicts the mystery of the natural world. In this painting, the small bird above is an adult Tailor bird and it is feeding a larger bird called the Plaintive cuckoo chick which it has incubated and raised in its own nest. This unique relationship is called Brood Parasitism and was seen in Singapore. The adult cuckoo birds are notorious nest robbers and select their hosts who have similar looking eggs as theirs. The painting title depicts the difficulty of satisfying the hunger of an overgrown chick, many times bigger than the parent bird.

Eagle Tree

This painting depicts the faithful bond between 2 adult eagles that remain as a pair for life. The subject is a family of the White-bellied Sea eagles, the largest eagle species in Singapore. The adults have specialised roles in raising a young eaglet. The female adult eagle guards the nest while the male hunts for food to feed both the young and its partner.

Hit the Water Running

This painting depicts the unique ability of a bird species. The subject is a pair of aquatic birds called Little Grebes. They are challenging each other with a speed race by running above the surface of the water at break-neck speed. This painting captures a fraction of a second of this race, punctuated with the help of the water splashes. God has indeed created in each bird species its own unique abilities.

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