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Visual Arts

Thomas Yeo

Prominent Singapore second-generation visual artist and president of Modern Art Society Singapore.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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It’s easy to say I want to be an artist because I love art. But this love alone is not enough. There are three things you must do to be an artist: You must have a dream—dream every day and night that you want to be an artist and of why you want to be an artist; you must have passion—all the time wherever you go, you are constantly thinking “I must draw this. I must create that”; and you must suppress your other interests and have discipline. The priority is always art and nothing else.

Thomas Yeo is a prominent Singapore second-generation artist. Educated at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Chelsea School of Art (now Chelsea College of Art and Design) and Hammersmith College of Art and Building, his modern works have been described as “highly imaginative landscapes of the unconscious mind”. He is also an active supporter of Singapore and Southeast Asian art, and has served as chairman of the Shell Discovery Art Awards and president of the Modern Art Society, Singapore. In 1984, Yeo received the UOB Painting of the Year award and the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Born in Singapore in 1936, Thomas Yeo had his first encounter with art as a student in Tao Nan Primary School. With Art as a compulsory passing subject, Yeo and his classmates would have art classes every Wednesday morning with their art teacher Mr Sim. Fascinated by the painting demonstrations that his teacher would give them, Yeo began to consider art as a serious pursuit.

From there, Yeo delved more deeply into his interest, and visited libraries regularly to read up on artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso. When he started working and earning money, Yeo bought several art books to feed his passion, amassing a large collection that he treasured deeply.

In 1958, Yeo started his formal art studies at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and graduated from the academy in 1960. He then set his sights on going to London to further his studies at the Chelsea School of Art (now Chelsea College of Art and Design).

He had painted every weekend for the past year, building up a collection of about 60 paintings, and so decided to also hold an exhibition to try and sell his paintings to raise funds for this endeavour. The exhibition was opened by then Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye, and the publicity meant that Yeo sold around 50 of his paintings within three days. On the last day of the exhibition, an English tourist—upon learning of Yeo’s intentions to study in London—bought up the rest of the unsold paintings.

Yeo moved to London, UK to attend the Chelsea School of Art in 1960 shortly after his exhibition. There, Yeo was struck by the independent culture and attitude of the art school’s students and staff, which was vastly different from his days at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Spurred on by criticism of his work by an art teacher, Yeo immersed himself in art, visiting the Tate Modern every Saturday to study the art works there and to listen to talks.

Not wanting to waste any free time he had, Yeo also began attending classes at the Hammersmith College of Art and Building in the evenings, learning crafts and techniques in polyester resin, marble, stained glass, and other techniques that were used in art-making. Soon, he found his studies at Hammersmith to be more enriching and useful, and he left the Chelsea School of Art and started attending the college as a full-time student.

Returning to Singapore after he graduated from Hammersmith, Yeo set to work on his artistic practice, becoming a significant Singapore second-generation artist over the next few decades.

Predominantly a painter, Yeo employed a variety of painting media, like gouache, oils and acrylics. His early works showed quiet surrealist natural environments—“mindscapes” as they were sometimes called,—with wispy images of trees, in which occasionally nestle slight hints of rural houses. Later he developed bolder abstractions of colour and textures. Described as “first and foremost a colourist” by fellow artist and critic Chia Wai Hon, Yeo’s paintings place colour as their topmost priority, with their subjects being of secondary importance. Yeo’s work in the ’80s prompted Chia to describe his output as “highly imaginative landscapes of the subconscious mind”.

Throughout the decades, Yeo embarked on long journeys across the borders of the countries in Indochina, like Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and China. The landscapes that he travelled through offered points of inspiration and deepened his insight as the artist who. The works that arose from his travels were works of self-expression inspired from his interactions and experiences.

Although Yeo is known more for his abstract paintings, he produced some figurative works as well, forming a deeper connection to it in recent years. He developed a series of portraits, better described as heads, which are faces of friends and strangers that he encountered on his trips abroad.

Yeo’s art works have been widely exhibited in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Europe, and countries such as USA, Australia, Japan, Korea and Macau. He has presented 39 solo exhibitions and participated in more than 100 exhibitions.

Besides his own artistic practice, Yeo also worked hard to promote art in Singapore. Active in gaining corporate support of art in Singapore in the form of sponsorships and awards, Yeo also served on a number of committees and juries. He was chairman of the Shell Discovery Art Awards for 17 years and served as a judge for 10 years for the Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards since its inception. He also served as president of the Modern Art Society, Singapore. Always a champion of Singapore and Southeast Asian art, Yeo has also been a vocal supporter of giving art commissions to Singapore artists over foreign artists.

Yeo was also behind the conception and production of six coffee-table books on Singapore artists, which helped give Singapore artists visibility and exposure to a growing audience in the ’90s. The books include Change: 20 Singapore Artist, Singapore Artists Speak and Singapore: Places, Poems, Paintings.

Yeo received the UOB Painting of the Year award in 1984, and went on to become a judge on the award’s panel. That same year, Yeo received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Timeline

22 Apr 1936

Born in Singapore.

1949 to 1955

Attended Tao Nan Primary School.

1958 to 1960

Attended Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore.

1960

Solo exhibition Watercolours, Oils and Chinese Ink, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Singapore.

1960 to 1961

Attended Chelsea School of Art (now College of Art and Design), London, UK.

1962

Participated in group exhibition Young Commonwealth Artists, R.B.A. Gallery, London, UK.

1963

Solo exhibition Malaysian Landscapes, Cathay Gallery, London, UK.

1966

Solo exhibition The New Image, National Library, Singapore.

1967

Solo exhibition Asian Themes, Commonwealth Institute, London, UK.

Participated in group exhibition Four Painters from the Commonwealth, Brighton, UK.

Participated in group exhibition Exhibition with Nine British Painters, Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford, UK.

1968

Solo exhibition New Nature, National Library, Singapore.

1969

Solo exhibition Abstract Landscapes, National Library, Singapore.

Solo exhibition Recent Works, Cultural Centre, Singapore.

Selected work: Misty Blue with Goat (abstract).

1970

Solo exhibition Mixed Media, Galleri II, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Solo exhibition New Paintings, National Library, Singapore.

Selected work: Autumn Warmth (gouache).

1971

Solo exhibition Seascapes and Landscapes, National Library, Singapore.

Received first prize, SIA Mural Competition.

1972

Solo exhibition Aluminium Reliefs and New Paintings, National Library, Singapore.

Participated in Adelaide Arts Festival, Lidum Gallery, Adelaide, Australia.

Participated in group exhibition Singapore 12 Top Artists, Alpha Gallery, Singapore.

1973

Solo exhibition Images of Asia, National Library, Singapore.

Solo exhibition Poetry in Landscapes, Raya Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.

1974

Solo exhibition Recent Landscapes and Abstract Acrylics, National Library, Singapore.

Solo exhibition Images of Nature, Raya Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.

Solo exhibition Visions of Asia, Skinner Gallery, Perth, Australia.

1975

Solo exhibition New Paintings, National Library, Singapore.

Solo exhibition New Nature, Raya Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.

1976

Participated in group exhibition Inaugural Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Selected work: Paper Symphony (abstract).

Solo exhibition Recent Works, National Library, Singapore.

Solo exhibition Landscapes and Abstract Collages, Raya Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.

1977

Solo exhibition Recent Landscapes and Collages, National Library, Singapore.

Solo exhibition Nature in Art, Raya Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.

1978

Solo exhibition Recent Paintings and Collages, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1979

Solo exhibition Asian Accent, Raya Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.

Participated in group exhibition Two Asian Artists, Solander Gallery, Canberra, Australia.

1980

Solo exhibition New Works, Raya Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.

1981

Solo exhibition Nature Series, Raya Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.

1983

Received 2nd Prize, UOB Painting of the Year Competition, Singapore.

1984

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Received UOB Painting of the Year award, Singapore.

Singapore representative, ASEAN Art Symposium, Manila, The Philippines.

Participated in group exhibition 25 Years of Art in Singapore, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in group exhibition 4th ASEAN Exhibition of Painting and Photography, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1985

Participated in group exhibition 2nd Contemporary Asian Art Show, Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan.

Selected work: City Vista (collage).

Selected work: Meeting Point.

1986 to 2002

Chairman, Shell Discovery Art.

1986

Solo exhibition Landscapes and Abstract Citiscapes, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1987

Solo exhibition Asian Landscapes and Collages, ZB Gallery, Vienna, Austria.

Solo exhibition Mixed Media Landscapes and Collages, Sparkasse Art Gallery, Waidhofen, Austria.

Solo exhibition Modern Asian Landscapes, Melnikow Gallery, Heidelberg, Germany.

1988

Judge, UOB Painting of the Year Competition.

Solo exhibition Continuation, Hyatt Regency, Singapore.

Participated in group exhibition Singapore Contemporary Artists, Hong Kong Art Centre, Hong Kong.

Participated in group exhibition The Second Decade, Masterpieces from Private Collections, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Selected work: Beach Scene (acrylic).

1989

Received Heineken International Art Award, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Solo exhibition Recent Paintings, Galleri Ambrosia, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Participated in group exhibition New York Art Expo Exhibition, Jacob K Javits Convention Centre, New York, USA.

1990

Helped conceptualise and publish Singapore Artists Speak.

1991

Received SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals Golden Circle Art Awark, UK.

Helped conceptualise and publish Change: 20 Singapore Artists.

Participated in group exhibition 11 Singapore Artists, Jacob K Javits Convention Centre, New York, USA.

Participated in group exhibition Many in One: 25 Years of Art from Singapore, Meridian House International, Washington DC, USA.

Participated in group exhibition Change: 20 Singapore Artists-A decade of their Work, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1992

Solo exhibition Moving Colours 1988-1992, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1993

Participated in group exhibition 8th Asian International Art Exhibition, Fukuoka and Tagawa City Art Museums, Japan.

Participated in group exhibition Singapore: Places, Poems, Paintings, National Art Museum Art Gallery, Singapore

Helped conceptualise and publish Singapore: Places, Poems, Paintings.

Selected work: Red Earth (acrylic)

Selected work: Ocean Blue (acrylic on canvas).

Member, Modern Art Society, Singapore.

1994

Helped conceptualise and publish Singapore Artists Speak 2.

1994 to 1999

President, Modern Art Society, Singapore.

1995

Received Pingat Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya, Artists of Various Resources, Singapore.

1996

Solo exhibition Thomas Yeo: 4 Years Journey, Takashimaya Gallery, Singapore.

Selected work: Head of Ah Beng (acrylic).

1997

Solo exhibition Thomas Yeo: A Retrospective, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore.

Participated in group exhibition 12th Asian International Art Exhibition, National Art Museum, Macau.

1998

Participated in group exhibition Modern Art Society Exhibition, Sichuan Art Museum, Chengdu, China.

Participated in group exhibition 4 Perspectives-Art Exhibition, National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand.

2000

Solo exhibition Thomas Yeo: Four Decades, Exhibition Gallery, Provisional Municipal Council of Macau, Macau.

Helped conceptualise and publish Young Contemporary Artists.

Selected work: Bird’s Eye View (mixed media).

2000 to 2003

Board member, Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

2005

Solo exhibition Thomas Yeo: Contrasting Images, Art Galleries, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore.

2007

Solo exhibition Thomas Yeo Reflections: A Fundraising Art Exhibition for The Substation, The Substation Gallery, Singapore.

Selected work: Reclaimed Land (acrylic on canvas).

July 2013

Solo exhibition Thomas Yeo: Recapturing, The Substation Gallery, Singapore.


TributeSG

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.

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