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Ong Kim Seng was born on 10 June 1945 in Singapore, and his name is synonymous with watercolour in Singapore. A self-taught artist who has exhibited around the world, his collectors include Queen Elizabeth II and Kofi Annan. Ong made history for Singapore in 1990 when he became the first Asian member to be named on the register of the American Watercolour Society, following the winning of important prizes administered by the organisation in the last two years. In 1990, Ong received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.
The only son of a washerwoman and single mother, Ong Kim Seng grew up in Tiong Bahru, a district which would feature as a subject in his paintings. He started his education at Radin Mas Primary School where he won an award for his art in his first year. Before this, Ong sketched and doodled as any child would. Winning the award made him realise that his interest in art could be more than just a hobby.
When he went to Pasir Panjang Secondary School, he joined the art society where members would go on weekly excursions to places such as Pulau Blakang Mati (now known as Sentosa) and Mount Faber to draw and paint. Ong proved himself a talented artist and was featured in the newspapers for winning several awards in the Annual Inter-School Art Exhibition in 1960. Though Ong showed talent in art, his mother was opposed to her only son being an artist and would tear up any of his paintings that she found. But he remained passionate for his art and continued to paint in secret.
Largely self-taught, he honed his early skills with a painting group led by the artist-lecturer Chia Wai Hon during the 1960s. They would meet every Sunday at the Red House Bakery building at Bras Basah Road and then head to the Singapore River where they would paint. The group, which included pioneer artists such as Choy Weng Yang, Lim Cheng Hoe, Ong Chye Cho and Chan Chong Swee, would greatly influence Ong in his art.
During those years until the 1980s, Ong earned a living plying his trade in a variety of different careers from advertising to bill-collection, welding and technical work. In 1985, he decided to become a full-time painter.
Ong’s works are rich in local colour – whether referencing old shophouses and alleyways of his birthplace in Singapore, or the sun-filled village-scapes remembered over the course of his many trekking expeditions across Asia. Ong’s style is described as post-impressionistic and naturalist, and marked by the observation of luminosity in a particular (often romanticised or exotic) place, bringing to life nostalgic scenes with quick and spontaneous brushwork.
In 1983, Ong received the Paul B. Remmy AWS Memorial Award by the American Watercolour Society, which led to more awards, eventually resulting in him being named a Dolphin Fellow with the society. Up till today, Ong is still the only Dolphin Fellow that is not from USA. In 1990, Ong received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.
Ong sold his first ever painting in 1962 for $120. He managed to locate it when the owner of the painting emailed him from Virginia, USA in 2001. Wanting to keep it for its significance, Ong bought back the painting for $4,800. Today, Ong is collected internationally. In 1993, he became the first Singapore watercolourist to be represented by the auction house, Sotheby’s, in a sale in Hong Kong. He has participated in numerous solo and group shows in Singapore, the Asia-Pacific, Europe and the United States.
Ong holds fast to his philosophy that art is an ongoing activity that does not end, and still continues to paint every evening late into the early hours of the morning as part of a regular daily regime.
Born in Singapore.
Enrolled in Radin Mas Primary School. Won an award for art in his first year.
Enrolled in Pasir Panjang Secondary School. Won several awards at the Annual Inter-School Art Exhibition 1960.
Joined the British’s Singapore Naval Base in Sembawang as a policeman.
First group show with other artists, Meyer Gallery, organised by Della Butcher.
Received First Prize in the Port of Singapore Authority Artists Encouragement Scheme Open Art Competition
Received Medal Award, Ministry of Culture, Singapore.
First solo exhibition: Himalayan Trek Art Exhibition, Asia Art Gallery, Singapore.
Received P.J. Ireland Award, Macquerie University, Australia.
Received Paul B. Remmy AWS Memorial Award, American Watercolour Society, USA, for Heart of Kathmandu.
Began painting full-time.
Received Lucy B. Moore Memorial Award, American Watercolour Society for Backyard, Singapore.
Received Clara Stroud Memorial Award, American Watercolour Society for Thimi, Nepal.
Became the first Asian Member of the American Watercolour Society, USA.
Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual art.
Received Ponnadai (“Golden Shawl”) title, Singapore Kairalee Kala Nilayam (Singapore Kairalee Arts Centre).
President, Singapore Watercolour Society.
Received Barse Miller Memorial Award, American Watercolour Society, for Gysante Market.
Bhaktaphur sold by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. It is the first Singapore watercolour work represented by the auction house.
Fellow, Centre of the Arts, NUS.
Committee member, Singapore Art Federation.
Member, Board of Directors, World Watercolor Society, San Diego, USA.
Vice-chairman, Singapore Art ’95.
Received Pingat APAD, Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya, Singapore
Member, Art Resource Panel (Visual Arts), National Arts Council.
Chairman, Asian Watercolours ’97, Singapore.
Vice-chairman, Singapore Art ’97.
Founding editor, Southeast Asia for International Artists.
Art advisor, National Arts Council.
Received Winsor & Newton Award, American Watercolour Society, for Old Corner, Nepal.
Received Excellence for Singapore Award, Singapore Totalisator Board
Received the Dolphin Fellowship, American Watercolor Society (for winning AWS awards five times). He is the only Dolphin Fellow outside of USA
Received Supporter of the Arts Award, National Arts Council.
Received The Singapore Internationale Award, Singapore International Foundation.
Received Ida Wells Memorial Award, American Watercolour Society.
Honorary President, Singapore Watercolour Society.
Life Fellow, Centre of the Arts, NUS.
Published instructional watercolour painting book, Mastering Light and Shade In Watercolor Painting.
Received Silver Award, National Watercolour Exhibition of the People's Republic of China, Fuzhou, China, for Stall Bali.
Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
Art featured as one of 10 painters on Art Series stamps by Singapore Post.
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Ong Kim Seng and family with his mother (second from right) on her first visit to one of his exhibitions. 1975.
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Ong Kim Seng receiving the Excellence for Singapore Award from former President Wee Kim Wee. Aug 2000.
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Ong Kim Seng receiving the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Award) from former President S R Nathan. 2004.
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.