By Sheer Force of Will

Sculptor and artist Han Sai Por reflects on a career spanning more than three decades, and why nature is a subject that remains close to her heart.

Interview by Charlene Chan
Photographs courtesy of Han Sai Por, STPI & Singapore Art Museum

Few could look at a towering block of stone and see the beauty of our natural environment contained within it, much less have the skill or patience to hew it into shapes that seem to go against all notion of what the unforgiving medium should allow. But in the hands of Singaporean sculptor Han Sai Por, they bend: granite, marble and a variety of metals take on soft, fluid forms, gentle giants that become gatekeepers to her world of art and creation.

han sai por transformation series

Transformation Series, 2013, Granite, Istana, Singapore

While this inherent contrast in Han’s work has come to define much of her career, what’s perhaps more admirable is the grit and determination that has enabled her to pursue her craft in the first place. In the aftermath of the Japanese Occupation, art was a calling not many would have dared respond to. But by taking on numerous jobs to fund her practice—teaching amongst them—Han eventually managed to put herself through art school, where she would begin creating the sculptures that are now dotted across the island and indeed, around the world.

han sai por black forest 2016

Black Forest 2016, 2016. Wood and charocoal, dimensions variable, artist’s collection. Singapore Biennale 2016 commission.

Hi Sai Por, please tell us how your interest in sculpture began. Was there a specific moment when you decided that it was something you wanted to pursue?

I love painting because I can see the beautiful landscape and images hidden inside coloured paints. I enjoy building and composing things by hand, and I appreciate form and volume. I like to imagine a space beyond reach, but have no specific preference between colour and form—I think I love both.

When I studied fine art in the UK, we had to do sculpture and painting projects as part of the course in our first year. For the Sculpture project, we needed to look for the material [we wanted to work with], and then based on an individual idea and concept, create a three-dimensional sculpture. I had done quite a bit of amazing work to impress my school lecturer, so in my second year, I was selected to major in Sculpture by the school. It was not my choice and decision; my professional studies was what led me to become a sculptor.

Before becoming a full-time artist, you taught part-time to support your work as a sculptor. Has your experience as a teacher informed some of your subsequent work?

I don’t think my works have been influenced by my experience with teaching, but as I was a trained teacher, I knew that discovery, experimentation and creativity are important parts of the learning process. These elements are also important to the production of creative works, especially as an artist.

What was it like being an artist in Singapore in the 70’s and 80’s?

In the 70’s and 80’s, most artists would never have thought that art could be a career; their passion for art was mainly personal interest and there were very few chances for us to connect with art in our daily lives. But at that time, art communities worked very closely to each other: they travelled together to paint and draw, organised exhibitions together, and encouraged each other to keep the momentum going. Private art schools were set up with no financial support from the government, and they struggled to survive with very little income from school fees.

Read more in The U Press N˚15 (Singapore edition).