A happy note

By Aaren Madden, April 2015

Using light and shadow, technique and subject matter, Clement Kwan paints to bring joy to viewers.

Clement Kwan has an ingenious, hand-made easel against one wall of his garage. Vertical two-by-four brackets hold two cross bars that adjust to fit the size of his canvas. Another vertical beam slides on a track in front. It holds a small, cushioned block of wood, also adjustable along the vertical column, which supports his wrist while he applies oil paint onto the canvas with brush or palette knife. 

The wall behind is covered with notes, handwritten in Chinese and posted over the course of many years. They are reminders to Kwan on technique and purpose. “Don’t let the photo control you. You control the photo,” one exhorts. (Reference photos—children among the goats at the Beacon Hill children’s farm or cavorting in fairy costumes—adorn a nearby bulletin board.) “Paint in space, not just on the canvas’ surface,” another urges. “What is the relation between light and dark?” queries a third. 

One note reflects Kwan’s raison d’etre. “Is this painting the meaning of health, wealth and happiness? Is it good for people to look at; does it give people happiness?” he translates. “It has to fit my standard,” he explains. Works in progress answer in the affirmative. A joyful cacophony of children and goats adorn one canvas; a woman plays the violin, immersed in its tranquil strains, on another. 

For Clement Kwan, art making is a pursuit of light and joy. “Light is life!” he smiles. In technical terms this is so in the vitality it brings to an image. Figuratively, the light he paints offers an affirming space to the viewer: apple-cheeked children at play, bathed in sunlight; athletic flamenco dancers immersed in the music; musicians equally so. 

“Fiery Flame,” a large work depicting flamenco dancers, comes to life with dashes of yellow, gold and red that seem to fly from the dancers’ swirling skirts. “My style is impressionism plus realism,” Kwan states. “Somehow I find that if it is too detailed, it’s dead. It becomes…not very vital.” Contrasts between loose brushstrokes and tight detail “becomes energy,” he says. 

That energy becomes powerfully evocative in “Still Playing.” This award-winning portrait of the composer, teacher and flautist Austin Scott (see page 35) is all the more poignant since Scott’s passing last November. Kwan had been playing flute with his friend at his home only last summer. His portrait shows a virtuoso carried away by the music, and taking audience and orchestra—who recede into impressionism, while Scott’s face is rendered in crisp detail—along. 

Kwan directs the viewer’s eye with such detail. The face of the young girl in the centre of “Young Riders” (on cover) captures the viewer’s eye before the gaze casts about a bustling scene of children, bikes and balloons that Kwan witnessed at the Oak Bay Tea Party. 

Kwan is rightfully proud of the People’s Choice Award this work received at the 2014 Sidney Fine Arts Show. “It’s not easy to get—the juror might give you first place, but that’s only his opinion. But the people voted that is ‘the one.’ That means it has a spirit inside,” he says.

Kwan seeks that spirit in all of his work, and values the creative freedom to do so. He was born in Southern China’s Guangdong Province in 1955 and grew up in a small town. “My mother was interested in writing, singing—all the arts,” Kwan shares, and she encouraged his predilection for drawing. She also put him in music lessons—he still plays most Chinese instruments, like the erhu (the lilting Chinese violin), and his specialty is the Chinese bamboo flute.

It was his visual art talent that his mother encouraged the most, introducing him to local artists. One mentorship that began when Kwan was in his teens continues to this day. Mian Situ is an artist two years’ Kwan’s senior who got a coveted opportunity to attend the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Situ would bring books back to the village to share with Kwan: “Rembrandt, Sargent, and Russian artists.” Artists could choose to study the calligraphic Chinese style of painting or the western style, with its verisimilitude and 3D effect. Like Situ, who is a successful artist living in Los Angeles today, “I chose the western way—shadows,” says Kwan, with an enthusiasm for the dramatic effect of chiaroscuro that has not waned. 

Opportunities being limited in China, Kwan’s artistic training consisted of a roughly six-month government program teaching mural painting. “You needed lots of basics. Portraits and people, how to do shapes, the space between the head, the body,” he says. Though brief, the teaching was rigorous—“more so even than the art schools here,” Kwan observes, “because they want you to do okay” at the end goal: painting propaganda murals of Mao Tse Tung and Chinese workers. Kwan did so for a few years, and also painted scenery for a stage company. Creative freedom was an unattainable dream.

However, it happened that Kwan’s father, brother and sister were already residing in Victoria. In 1979, after greater leniency meant it was possible to leave China with good reason, he and his mother joined the rest of his family—and Kwan met his father for the first time. His brother helped him get a job as a machine operator at Langford’s Kennametal. “It was not a hard adjustment, because China’s conditions were so bad,” he says.

In his spare time, he basked in what was previously unattainable living under communist rule. “Library—wow! Museum—wow! And the galleries. You could see beautiful originals,” he recalls with awe. “So I was always learning,” he says, even though he set painting aside for a number of years. 

After he had settled, married, and had a son and daughter, he picked up his brush once more. In 1986, his family attended the first Sooke Fine Arts Show and he thought out loud, “I could do this!” At his wife’s encouragement, he entered the show the following year and sold both paintings. Several awards and commissions followed, and after 27 years at Kennametal, Kwan began painting full time in 2007. He attracted gallery representation at Sidney’s Peninsula Gallery and in Calgary and the United States. “With art, it is not easy to make a living,” he says, quick to add, “Of course when you do something you like, that is worth lots of money.”

For Kwan, that includes bringing others happiness. “Joy and hope are what I want to convey,” he says. “That is why in my paintings are dancing, music, children. Children are so free; they express whatever they are feeling.” 

“I feel life is very short,” he concludes. “My children are getting older—I think, hmm, not much time! Something happy is important.”


Clement Kwan’s work can be seen at Peninsula Gallery, 100-2506 Beacon Ave, Sidney, 250-655-1282, www.pengal.com, and at www.clementkwan.com.

Kids, music, dancing—not to mention galleries and libraries: Aaren Madden hopes she never takes these joys of life for granted.