WHAT’S next? Two simple words, but a difficult question to answer when you’re seeking meaning in your life or wondering what to explore beyond routine and familiarity.
“When you reach a certain age, especially for women, you start to think about your sense of purpose. What’s next for you other than corporate work, other than what you’ve been building all this while. What’s next?” poses Shereen Sandhu Kaur before adding that this change in her sense of purpose struck when she reached the milestone age of 40 and along the road of self-discovery, she renewed her interest in art.
Continuing, she says: “I was already interested in art when I was in school, but life happened, career happened, I got married, so art took a back seat and somehow it emerged again in late 2017. Since then, I’ve been hands on, learning how to paint and finding something that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Seated beside her is Ratna Rashidi whose next phase of her life was prompted by medical advice. “I had my own wedding planning business for 15 years until the doctor told me enough because the stress was a bit too much for the little ticker. He’d been asking me to change for three years and I finally did,” says the jovial mother of two adult daughters, adding: “At 46-years-old, I decided to learn something new.”
A few years ago, these two cheerful ladies found joy in watercolour painting, meeting by chance when Shereen attended one of Ratna’s painting classes specialising in botanicals, which refers to florals and plant species.
“I totally fell in love with the whole works and watercolours!” recalls mother-of-two, Shereen, who’d left behind a corporate career in sales, marketing and human resources. The two women soon developed a friendship that led them to conceptualise a self-funded initiative for the visual arts community, one that would provide support to undiscovered and emerging artists. The outcome of their effort is called Lukis Tulis Malaysia (LTM) which as the name suggests, promotes drawing, painting and writing. But it’s also a whole lot more than that.
SUPPORT FOR UNKNOWNS
As an arts-driven platform, Lukis Tulis Malaysia was born out of a desire to help the community embrace art and understand its ability to bring about empowerment, improved mental health and overall well-being. As a festival, Lukis Tulis Malaysia’s intent is to provide a venue where emerging talents can showcase their work and network while arts enthusiasts in general can explore ways to express their creativity.
The recently concluded Lukis Tulis Malaysia, held over a weekend in Jaya One, featured a carefully curated programme: a bazaar comprising about 30 arts-related brands and vendors, mini workshops, art demonstrations and talks, art and journal jam, a children’s colouring contest, plus an exhibition and auction featuring the art of undiscovered talents.
When the organisers put up a call for artists to exhibit, they received nearly 70 submissions and people were surprised that the entry barrier was so easy. From across our table in a Jaya One café, 42-year-old Shereen explains: “They asked how much. Submitting is free but once we’ve curated and you’re selected, there’ll be a minimal fee. That’s why this is a self-funding thing.”
Continuing, she shares: “The fee that they and the vendors contribute feeds our expenses, rental of easels, movers and such, to do this event. We want to make it affordable for hobbyists, housewives, students, and retirees.”
One of their few rules, however, is that participants shouldn’t be tied to any agency or gallery. The two co-founders of LTM explain that although art festivals are nothing new on the local scene, they usually cater for prominent or established artists, invited or overseas artists, and that one needs to be linked to a gallery in order to participate or exhibit their work at such events.
“That’s why we wanted to start LTM because the arts scene in Malaysia is very young compared to other countries in the region like Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, which are very open and supportive,” remarks Shereen.
Expression earnest, she continues: “Malaysia is really coming up and we thought it would be a good platform to twist the mechanics a bit. The norm has been that in order for you to get an exhibition, you have to know somebody or be linked to someone. But if you’re just an emerging artist, you don’t have these networks and connections. So how can you be discovered or get yourself seen?”
The 49-year-old Ratna has also been in that precise predicament. In a rare moment of somberness, the wedding planner-turned-painter shares: “When I was doing it, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to get far with watercolour because of the medium that I use. Watercolour isn’t really accepted in this country. People advised me to go with acrylics and oils, but me being stubborn, I wanted to know why.”
Sighing, she elaborates: “They told me that watercolour is the hardest medium to understand. So when I was starting out, I had no support from the community because I was an unknown, and I guess, yet to be discovered.” Hence LTM’s tagline, “An art festival for the community” conveys their strong intent to fill a void in the local arts scene.
THERAPY AND OPPORTUNITY
As mothers, the two LTM co-founders believe in the importance of encouraging children to start painting or drawing as it can serve as an outlet for them to express themselves freely. They remind me that this relates to art being a form of mental therapy, adding that art has been proven to slow down or minimise the risk of Alzheimer’s, thus bringing the benefits back to the community.
“I’m also trying to teach parents not to stop them from drawing or painting because it can lead to so many things”, confides Ratna before her friend continues by offering examples of opportunities. “From architect, interior design, illustration, product design….. art-preneur!” Immediately the pair burst into teen-like giggles. I learn that ‘artpreneur’ is Shereen’s current favourite word, her self-created portmanteau of art and entrepreneur. Pretty catchy, I muse.
Besides their aim to encourage artistic endeavours, LTM’s intention is also to collaborate with other art-preneurs. Shereen shares how they teamed up with Art Seni, an up-and-coming art tour group in Kuala Lumpur, to curate a customised version during the LTM festival, taking participants on a neighbourhood art tour that concluded at Panggung Riuh, another art-themed event happening nearby. “The Art Seni tour is a good example of how three different vendors with three different agendas and vision can form a collaboration through a neutral party to bring people together.”
The ladies tell me that LTM, or rather the organising entity behind it called Kofukara, plans to continue the network of artists via online and offline means, and targets to organise some helpful programmes for artists in the future. They’re also exploring the possibility of expanding LTM to other states, such as in East Malaysia.
Three years ago, these two bubbly ladies, juggling their own careers and families, couldn’t have imagined spearheading an arts initiative like Lukis Tulis Malaysia. Shereen hadn’t dabbled in art since school and Ratna claims she’d never been artistic, save for her love of colours.
The former revived her dormant interest when she went for a floral watercolour workshop that a friend had gifted her, and there, “something clicked internally”. Meanwhile Ratna, a self-confessed regimented person, spent her newfound free time teaching herself to paint by watching countless Youtube videos (“I practiced daily non-stop for six months!”).
“In this day and age, people are looking for work-life balance. It’s important to have some outlet but you do need to figure out your outlet,” says Shereen earnestly before continuing, “Art is vast enough because there are so many types of art. It’s fun because there will be a creation or product at the end of it.”
But what if someone isn’t interested in drawing or painting, I ask. A pause ensues before they recommend the ‘tulis’ part which refers to journaling. “Nowadays you can even paint on journals,” explains Ratna, a keen journal-keeper herself. “It also depends on the media used. Some people prefer to use rubber stamps, stickers, or waterproof pens. This is what’s trending now… ”
Immediately, she presents a small book, flipping through the pages to show me samples of her journal. “Oohs” and “ahhs” escape my lips upon seeing her entries filled with her elegant handwriting and colourful pictures that she painted to depict certain memories of food or people.
Smiling, Shereen pipes: “Some people will say I don’t have good handwriting so I don’t want to write.
We want to show them that it’s not about the handwriting.” There are other ways to fill a journal such as stamping, sketching, doodling, or in Shereen’s case, she uses her journal to plan her time in the style of bullet journaling. “This is like our ‘conteng’ book, to put New Year’s resolutions, your “To Do” list… it doesn’t have to be that artistic.”
When quizzed whether men also indulge in such pursuits, they reply that men have a different style and are generally inclined towards writing, prefer tools like fountain pens, and perhaps drawing some simple pictures. Suddenly, Shereen recalls: “There’s a guy on Instagram in Malaysia who’s in sales. When he’s waiting for his customers, he scribbles. For him, it’s therapy and an outlet.”
There are windows of opportunity in our everyday lives to put pen, pencil or paintbrush to paper, if we can just motivate ourselves or overcome those internal doubts. The best advice that they impart before we conclude our chat is simply to try it.
“If you look at it 10,000 times and don’t try, it won’t work,” declares Shereen before her LTM partner chips in: “What have you got to lose? It’s only a piece of paper. Don’t tear it or chuck it away. It’s a lesson. If you go wrong somewhere, it’s only paper. Pick up another paper and start again.”
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