Calling herself an ‘accidental artist,’ self taught Debora Teo produces unique artworks which are a reflection of her deep feelings, everyday surroundings, and complex emotions. She tells Sharuna Segaren about her unexpected yet rewarding artistic journey.
About the Artist
A mother of two, soft-spoken 42-year-old artist Debora Teo was born in Brunei, but spent most of her life in Miri, Sarawak. Her career in art has recently led her to move to Kuala Lumpur. Currently, the self-represented artist has just wrapped up an joint exhibition in Bali, Indonesia with five other Malaysian and Indonesian artists, ‘Window of the Soul’, and is being featured in a group exhibition in conjunction with the KL International Arts Festival 2015 by Sutra Foundation.
Debora explained that the events over the course of her life is shown in the evolution of her work and each energy evoked in each painting is different. She doesn’t believe in restricting herself with rules and borders in her work, and as she is self-taught, every day is a learning process. Debora finds herself inspired by what she sees around her, what attracts her, and how she feels and reacts towards the challenges that come in the way of everyday life. Her work encompasses powerful, evocative, emotional, contradictory images with vivid colours and patterns. Like many artists who express themselves through visual media or words, Debora’s journey began with a crisis.
When she was only 32 years old, Debora’s life was thrown off course by an unexpected curveball. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her journey to recovery is what led her to express herself through the arts. When she first began painting, she didn’t expect her career would take off so quickly and successfully as it did. Her philosophy towards art is significantly different than other artists, as she views her approach to art as a means of feeling and emotions of a person arising from their direct experience.
“I have always loved art and creating art, since I was a child. However, I didn’t actually think I was any good at it. I took part in art competitions as a student but I never even won any, although I got good grades in art,” the pretty ex-stewardess says with a shy smile. “Around 2010 is when it all began. People started seeing my paintings and asked to buy them. I had a lot of free time and was recovering from my illness, so I had a lot of time to myself. I decided to pick up painting and found it to be very therapeutic. I was still doing my chemotherapy treatments, and this gave me an outlet to express myself and also an escape from everyday life. Some of my friends saw my work and asked if they could buy it.”
She said that initially, painting was just a hobby to her and she didn’t think her work was good enough to qualify as art to be sold. “But slowly, I started selling and more and more people were expressing interest. Then, someone saw my work and invited me to do a show in Brunei, which propelled my career. I gained confidence as an artist and this paved the way for where I am today.”
Debora also enjoys teaching and takes on students from time to time. “I love teaching, but I currently can’t commit to having many students as I am always travelling and I don’t want to be cancelling classes. I really like teaching children, and I would like to pursue it in the future. My way of teaching is different, as it is not based on academics or following a syllabus, but getting the students to open up and find themselves through art. I find educational art somewhat technical, and the students are bogged down by grading and studies. I don’t believe in grading art as to me, it is subjective and children should be encouraged to express themselves freely, instead of being hindered by getting good grades.”
Debora’s own teenage children seem to have also inherited her artistic genes and outlook on life, as she says that her son is a Manga fan and is talented with drawing comics and doodles, while her daughter is currently pursuing her passion in photography.
What Inspires Her
Although she never trained formally in art, Debora Teo’s talent and dedication to her work is shown in her stunning, evocative paintings, typically of the female form, which is her favourite subjectmatter. She says, “Women are interesting creatures, expressive, motherly, demure, intriguing, complicated, exciting, sensual, and beautiful. Someone asked me before, ‘Why do you only paint the female form and not the male?’ There is no specific reason, so I replied, ‘Why not?’” Debora’s work reflects women’s lives and experiences, and she strives to tell a story through her pieces to portray something or someone.
“My work, while I create from deep within, is rarely about me. It’s also about society as a whole, about children, about families, about life. I gain inspiration from things I see around me, people I know and don’t know, whether it’s in a coffee shop, supermarket, wherever. The smallest things can be so interesting.”
Her explanation for her painting, ‘Conformity 1’, shows how her work often reflects how society can restrict one’s creative freedom, “This painting depicts social conformity based on my reaction to the world we live in and my surroundings… how we are sometimes forced to conformto society even if we don’t like it. We laugh at sheep because the just follow, but in a way we humans have ‘out-sheeped’ the sheep, because at least sheep need a sheepdog to keep them in line. Humans keep each other in line. And they do it by ridiculing or condemning anyone who strays out of formation, and that’s what it’s become, the price of being different. I think the end result of conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”
Debora has dabbled in using oils, but finds acrylic painting to be her favourite medium. “I find a strong connection with acrylics. I also use a lot of sponging methods to blend in colours, apart from using brushes. Another reason why acrylic is most suited for me is because I am very impatient!With oil you have to wait for it to dry before beginning another layer, but I cannot do that.When I am immersed in a work and in the midst of inspiration, I don’t stop until it’s completed. I just get into the ‘zone’. My friends will be calling and asking to see me, but I tell them to please wait, I’ll be free once I’ve completed my painting!” she says with a laugh.
She is a fan of Austrian born Symbolist/ Art Nouveau painter, Gustav Klimt, due to his genuine honesty and frankness in his works. Her earlier artworks were in fact inspired by him, and it was his painting entitled ‘The Kiss’ that had first rekindled her passion for art and motivated her to delve back into it.
Since returning from her joint exhibition in Bali, Debora has found herself inspired by her Balinese friends who are also mentoring her in art. “I found the Balinese people and their way of life so amazing. They are such spiritual people. They give offerings and say thanks for everything, from the trees to the books to the food on the table. I asked my friend, why do you do that? He said that the trees give us oxygen, and the books give us knowledge, so we must appreciate them. We take things for granted all the time, so I really admire them. They have taught me that painting is not just about the technique but also about how to channel your energy and dig deeper into the soul on a higher level. They live a simple life, yet their way of thinking is so deep.”
Her Journey Continues
When asked about her view for the future and where she sees herself in a few years, Debora says honestly that she doesn’t know. She has a potential upcoming solo exhibition at the end of the year as well as a joint one in Manila next year, but she hasn’t committed herself to a long-term plan.
“For me, art is not a destination but a journey. I grow and evolve every day, and this is why I cannot possibly predict where I will be in the future. I like to remain in the moment, and this is how I am with my work as well. I just keep on painting to improve my skills and techniques and to find personal growth along the way. My work has always spoken for itself, and I hope it will continue that way. I advise other artists to follow their passion, listen to their heart, and take it from there.”
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- An Interview with Cheong Laitong, A Renowned Malaysian Artist
Source: Senses of Malaysia November-December 2015
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