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A travel sketching experience with Chankerk
Aarti, would you like to join a Travel Sketching Excursion with us?’ It was a question posed by my art teacher Chankerk, artist and owner of My Art Space in Singapore, several times in the past. This was the first time I said yes and I am so glad I did.
If you’ve ever attended Chankerk’s guided art sessions at My Art Space, you’d know his style is gentle, unassuming, and respectful. He delivers his expertise with such a soft touch you almost forget how masterful an artist he is.
His Travel Sketching Excursions carry the same vibe. You go in unaware of what to expect and when you leave, you’re astounded by the breadth of the experience and the deep impact it leaves on you as a human being and an artist.
Our trip began on a very wet Wednesday morning in February. Chankerk picked us up in his car from Plaza Singapura at 9 am and we set off towards his hometown in Malaysia – Kluang. The name, originally derived from the Malaysian word ‘Keluang’, means ‘bat’ and is the town’s official mascot even today. So, if the name ‘Kluang’ is ever too hard to remember, just think of the town Batman would have lived in if he was Malay.
Our group of artists and explorers included Marta – a gentle Polish woman with a deep love for nature and animals; Jerome – a lively and quick-witted French man who knew a little something about everything; Aarti (that’s me) – an Indian woman from the advertising world with an insatiable appetite for stories; and finally, of course, Chankerk – an artist, curator, teacher, and our travel guide. It wasn’t by accident we’d ended up in the same group; it was all part of Chankerk’s thoughtfully designed experience.
As the conversation flowed, so did the traffic, and we crossed the Johor Bahru border in under an hour. I heaved a sigh of relief that we’d left on a weekday as opposed to a weekend or public holiday.
On the other side of the border awaited green hills and palm trees. Chankerk explained that in the early days Kluang was a prosperous agricultural town, and the ones who ended up inheriting agricultural land were extremely wealthy today. Those who had to make their way to work in Singapore were the less fortunate ones!
Around 11.30 am, we stopped at a traditional Hainanese Kopitiam at Simpang Renggam’s pineapple estate. It was the kind of place you’d miss if you’d been driving past on your own – stripped of any décor or pretentions, offering simple plastic chairs and tables, and chance to rediscover the simple of joys of coffee made with locally sourced beans; assorted local breads enhanced with kaya jams, peanut spread, and garlic butter; and the sweetest pineapples which taste the way real pineapples should. I didn’t finish my coffee and the owner of the Kopitiam had to be reassured it wasn’t his quality that was amiss.
We sat on a small pedestrian bridge a few meters down where a stone bench turned into a convenient sketching table, and a roof protected us from the sun while we sketched. Here, Chankerk explained the basics of intuitive sketching and how to observe the scene in front of us. The idea was to identify an area of focus and build around it following a three-step process: Step 1: Big pattern, Step 2: Shape and form, Step 3: Smaller details.
We were told to switch off our thinking minds and sketch quickly, without worrying about neatness or straight lines. From a mess of unrecognizable scribbles, I was surprised to see some semblance of a scene emerge. It was far from good, but it freed me from the idea of perfection and taught me to trust in the process.
Before I knew it, our session was over and we moved on to have some trunch (teatime lunch) at a cool and contemporary café called Kluang Days run by a remarkable woman called Anson. Looking at her you’d never tell she was the owner of the café, or that she ran one of the best hotels in Kluang, or that she was an art collector who’d invested in an entire series of Chankerk’s works – among her many accomplishments.
Curious about why she chose to remain in her hometown when she clearly had a global aesthetic, I raised the question and she said something that will always stay with me, ‘When I was younger, I was curious about everything that existed outside of home. Now that I’m older, I find myself going inwards more, and I find a deep sense of happiness there.’ Looking out of the window of her café, she indicated at a mountain – a distinctive feature of the town – saying, ‘And when I turn and look outside, I see this beautiful mountain.’ She spoke quietly with a gentle smile that spoke volumes about her rootedness. Unlike me, she wasn’t someone who questioned her purpose every day. She was living it.
I ordered the Vegetarian Curry Lodeh Pasta, along with a portion of Sambal Fries to share. The food was plated beautifully, and the taste deserved five stars on Trip Advisor. There were also poke bowls and artisanal coffees and teas to choose from. If I lived in Kluang, I am certain I would make this café my second home.
Post trunch, we climbed up to the second floor of the café where Chankerk had a massive studio space to create his personal work, provided by Anson, as part of their working relationship and shared vision to grow Kluang into an art and culture hub for travelers. Adjoining the studio, was a community room filled with books and art where the café hosts art-related events and meet ups.
Soon, it was time to head the next sketching destination: Talula Hill Farm Resort. Its café, where we sat to sketch, had a jaw droppingly beautiful view of a terraced farm, in the middle of which the resort’s cabins were located. The lush Gunung Lambak forest formed the backdrop of this scene.
After we’d ordered some fresh fruit juices, Chankerk gave us guidelines on how to interpret the scene. We were free to sketch any part of the scenery we felt inspired by which was challenging because there were so many exciting elements and, to add to the distraction, it was also golden hour, the most beautiful time of the day! My pen roamed all over the page trying to capture every little tree, moving car, and goat. I got lost in the story so, while I had a lot of fun, my sketch missed a clear focal point, but I still loved it.
As it grew dark, we packed up our materials and headed to our hotel to freshen up. Starz hotel, located at the heart of Kluang, was also one of Anson’s establishments, which meant it was clean and modern and just right for an overnight stay.
Twenty minutes later, we headed to Mengkibol Riverside to have dinner at a local seafood place, which included a whole fish, steamed cabbage, vegetable curry, fried sotong, rice, and some beer to wash it all down. My favourite item was the cabbage – simple, fresh, and flavourful.
Before we knew it, day 1 was a wrap. I couldn’t believe the number of experiences Chankerk had managed to squeeze in without ever making us feel rushed. In fact, he even had some late-night adventures we could partake of which included sketching a live roasting of a pig on a traditional spit but we made do with a short drive before bedtime instead.
The next day began bright and not-too-early at 8 am with our first stop at Kampung Bentong for breakfast. Our roadside coffee shop was attended to by a Malay gentleman who spoke perfect English with a slight colonial twang. It wasn’t his café, he said, but his daughter’s. He was merely there to pass the time, lend a hand and, of course, mingle with the guests. The local coffee was served piping hot, along with some soft and flaky roti prata. After a bit of chit-chat and soaking up the morning sun, we headed to the first sketching spot of the day.
Chankerk pulled the car up on the side of the road just outside a cowshed. We set up our folding stools and peered through the mesh barricade at the cows, who peered back at us with hopes of being fed, but quickly realised there was no food on offer.
‘Their eyes are shaped like human eyes’, Chankerk observed, as he broke down a cow’s anatomy into simple shapes for us. Sketching these sensitive creatures was a challenge as our live models kept moving or turning their backs to us perhaps annoyed at the presence of the humans-with-no-food. This simply meant we had to match body parts from different cows, where we could, and create a complete figure! It was fun.
A little while later, we set off to sketching spot number 2, as the ambition was to cover at least 4 sketches that day. It was Jerome’s ambition, mostly, but we were happy to comply. The subject this time was a home that belonged to a chicken farmer. The homes in this neighbourhood were nothing like the impeccable row houses we were used to seeing in Singapore, this was a real kampung! Outside the chicken farmer’s home, we saw roosters in cages, scooters and cars, potted plants, old swings hanging from trees, laundry drying, and other odds and ends. Every now and then, small vans would pass by making announcements for things on sale.
Once again, we were told to pick a spot we felt inspired by and this time I was a little more focused. I picked a tree which had some potted plants at its base and a small plastic swing hanging from a branch. Thanks to Chankerk’s tips I could now capture different kinds of foliage a little more quickly, separate the light and shadows better, and interpret perspective in a more realistic way. My sketching showed a marked improvement.
For lunch, we headed back into town, and I made a beeline for Kluang Days café while Chankerk and Marta tried out a Malay restaurant down the road and Jerome finished a work call, after which we we set off to the next sketching spot an hour away.
Sungei Ayam felt like a place untouched by time. A sleepy little fishing village with slatted wooden houses, old wooden jetties, and wooden boats, the kind they don’t make anymore. The grounds outside the fishermen’s homes were strewn with discarded shells. It felt like a beach from which all the sand had been sifted out.
Chankerk guided us on to an old jetty to observe the boats docked in the river. From bridges and trees, to terraced landscapes and cows, this was a completely new subject to take on. As Chankerk explained the important angles to observe in a boat, it made me realise how much we had learned in less than two days and how much he’d simplified the concepts so that the sessions never felt long or boring, but spontaneous and exciting.
While we worked, the ladies of the house brought over some fried snacks hot off the gas; an enthusiastic young boy did a quick portrait of Chankerk, which gained some well-deserved praise from the group; and Chankerk took lots of photos and videos to capture the memories on camera. We felt perfectly at peace in these completely unfamiliar surroundings thanks to the residents’ gentle and unobtrusive manner.
I captured the scene in a straightforward, not particularly creative way, but was happy to discover I had more confidence in my approach. I observed how I tend to get lost in the details, which is something I need to learn to overcome. I completed the exercise the best I could and proceeded to apply water colours for the first time during the trip, which made my sketch look so much nicer.
Chankerk kept his eye on the clock and had us on the road well before sunset to head to our dinner destination in Batu Pahat, in a small town called Segenting. On the way, Jerome decided to sketch the traffic since we were still one sketch short of our target of 4. While I took a short nap, Marta took in her fill of farms filled with old palm trees through the window, and Chankerk continued to share interesting anecdotes about the places we were driving through.
An hour later, we pulled into a parking lot that had some expensive cars parked, which gave us a clue that there may be something extra special about this place. Little did we know just how special.
We followed Chankerk through narrow lanes, passing a small Chinese temple, a school, homes tucked into alleys, colourful murals, stray dogs, and playful children. As the roads started widening, we arrived at the famous Sengting Chong Long Gong temple where, in the past, fishermen would seek blessings before going out to sea. After crossing the temple’s giant religious sculptures and an elaborately designed water feature that also doubled up as a wishing pond, we arrived at a scene that took my breath away – a vast and magnificent view of the sea. It almost felt like we had swum through tangled depths and arrived up for fresh air.
Our seafood restaurant was located right at the seafront, and we spent a few moments in silence watching the sunset as it painted the sky in tangy shades of orange. Just like the location, the food was delightful too. In particular, the finger-licking black pepper crab and the stir-fried pea sprouts.
It was well past 9 pm when we started making our way back towards Singapore. On the journey home, Chankerk shared his plan to train local artists in Kluang to act as guides on future trips. His vision was not just to expand the experience to more travelers, but to support local communities and create a culture where art is seen as a thing of value. Something that not only brings beauty into the world but also sustains livelihoods.
The whole experience gave me an even deeper respect for my teacher who was so optimistic and driven to create a more meaningful human experience through art, in a society where it isn’t considered a real profession.
Seeing the world through Chankerk’s eyes on this Travel Sketching Excursion, I walked away with many gifts. Some of which included a new way to sketch and to travel, but mainly, a blueprint of what it takes to design a life filled with beauty and purpose.