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Singaporean artist and home chef Kenn Lam discusses art, the Singapore identity, his passions, and the importance of honesty.

Singapore represent!

But let’s look beyond the Merlion and MBS please.

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Kenn Lam has worked with clients such as publishing company HarperCollins, British online newspaper The Independent and online magazine Vittles. His work has been displayed at the American history museum and library New-York Historical Society and the Society of Illustrators. Yet, the illustrator and visual artist identifies first as a home chef and only then as an illustrator. 

Kenn is one of three artists GXS collaborated with for our brand launch. This was our first big campaign to introduce the brand to the public and showcase our challenger spirit. The campaign was centred around a series of questions designed to make you ask yourself: What if things were different? 

This was brought to life in a series of art pieces created with local artists. (You may have seen them on social media, online, or on a Grab car!) Kenn was asked to do a unique interpretation on contemporary conventions. His response?

Challenging Conventions: GXS x Kenn

We asked Kenn five questions to find out a bit more about him, his art, and how he challenges conventions.

What’s your take on Singapore’s art scene? 

I can only comment on the specific corner of the art scene that I'm familiar with. Specific to the illustration community, I believe there's no shortage of talent. However, the small size of this country coupled with the fact that any industry's first priority is to be financially viable, means that there is a proportionately smaller space for illustrators here to make choices without being forced to address the question "will it sell?". Throw in the element of market expectations and you end up with an art scene ridden with pastiche, often copying Japanese art simply because that's what's popular.

As a young nation, we have the luxury of cherry-picking from an array of external influences without the constraints of tribalistic or traditional conventions. Yet, there is a risk of losing sight of what makes Singapore truly unique beyond iconic symbols like the Merlion, hawker food, and Marina Bay Sands.

What’s your creative process?

I start with a physical sketchbook and jot down the subjects and intended message of my artwork. If there are unfamiliar objects, I quickly sketch them to familiarise myself. Then, I create thumbnail-sized compositions, spending about 30 seconds to a minute on each of them. This rapid exploration allows me to find a strong composition without spending too much time to do detailed sketches that might not work. I firmly believe that if a composition doesn't work at a small scale, it won't translate well when enlarged. 

Once I've found a composition I like, I transition to my iPad where I redraw the sketch in greater detail. I then add more detail until the artwork is complete. I find that the best compositions are usually the ones made in the shortest span of time.

How do you keep your passion alive? 

Having interests beyond my craft helps tremendously. I often joke that I'm a home chef first and an illustrator second, but there's some truth to that. I see art and illustration as a means to translate everything else I'm passionate about — my worldview, inspirations, and interests — into a cohesive body of work. 

That for me is cooking, playing music, learning languages and so on. I probably invest more time satiating these interests than actually illustrating and thanks to that, I don't often have creative blocks. If I can offer some advice to young creatives, it's to have a life outside of your practice and to work on how to translate your passions into your work.

Kenn's advice to young creatives: Have a life outside of your practice and translate your passions into your work (Photo: Kenn Lam)

What’s a story you like to share? 

During a journey through Kadagių Slėnis, a picturesque botanical reserve near Kaunas, Lithuania, I stumbled upon a friendly family fishing by the reservoir — the only people I encountered in the entire reserve. Their warm hospitality led to impromptu sketching and conversations. When they discovered my love for cooking, they invited me to their home for lunch. They let me decide the menu - which I appreciated - and I made them a risotto with the fish they had caught. More of their friends joined the party and we had some great conversations about food and art. Our adventure continued with cycling through scenic landscapes, refreshing dips in lakes, and thrilling kayaking trips. The day was unforgettable, and they insisted I stay the night, which I reckon is a great indicator of a day well spent. I'm pretty sure the encounter would not have been possible if I hadn't started sketching them.

What does your art mean to you?

Art has always been a means to channel and process the thoughts and emotions I have. I don't think much about what kind of impact it'll have or how it's juxtaposed against the rest of the industry. That said, I found that the closer I've got to creating work that's honest, the better the reception.

In June 2023, Lam was part of a group show called Risology at Galerie Le Monde, Tokyo. Below are some of his pieces that were featured. 

Snatched, Nicey, Pure Bliss (Photo: Kenn Lam)

To view Lam’s other art pieces, check out his Instagram

Psst! Here's something else you should know: 

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