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FEATURE/Sketches in Motion: The journey of Taipei's metro artist

02/13/2024 01:37 PM
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7-year-old Amber Huang watches as metro artist Chen Kiun-tong sketches a passenger on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
7-year-old Amber Huang watches as metro artist Chen Kiun-tong sketches a passenger on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024

By Sunny Lai, CNA staff reporter

On an ordinary weekday afternoon, the ebb and flow of Taipei Metro commuters on the Tamsui-Xinyi line unfolding as usual, little did the passengers getting on and off the last car realize some of them had unwittingly become "models" for a gray-headed artist's swift and detailed sketches.

As the doors of the subway car opened and closed in rhythmic precision, 81-year-old metro painter Chen Kiun-tong (陳鈞同) was searching for his next sketch subject, and later realized that he had been spotted -- a young girl was looking straight at him and the sketch pad he was holding.

Within the span of a few minutes, the girl's face on the sketch pad underwent a metamorphosis from anonymity to artistry under the deft strokes of the seasoned artist's fingers covered in ink, adding an unexpected layer of creativity to the girl's afterschool journey in late January.

"The uncle just drew me, and he did it beautifully," said 7-year-old Amber Huang, noting that she also enjoys drawing, especially dinosaurs.

In the metro car making its way to Tamsui, the old artist and the young girl seized the moment to get a photo together. Amber's passion for drawing somehow transported Chen back to his childhood as the scenery outside the windows passed by.

Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong prepares to sketch on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong prepares to sketch on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Amber Huang becomes metro artist Chen Kiun-tong’s “model” on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Amber Huang becomes metro artist Chen Kiun-tong’s “model” on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Amber Huang and metro artist Chen Kiun-tong pose for a photo together with Chen’s sketch on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Amber Huang and metro artist Chen Kiun-tong pose for a photo together with Chen’s sketch on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024

From casual interest to lifelong pursuit

Born in 1942, Chen initially had only a casual interest in drawing, much like many other children. It was not until high school that this interest took root and blossomed into a lasting passion.

"My passion [for drawing] started to grow when I was in high school ... One time on a school field trip, when my classmates went to pick tangerines, I told them I am not interested -- I just wanted to keep drawing," Chen recalled, reflecting on the spark that ignited his lifelong artistic journey.

After enrolling on the architecture program at National Cheng Kung University in 1964, Chen joined the art club and continued to immerse himself in the world of art. This passion persisted even after graduation, leading him to explore various forms of artistic expression, including oil painting, watercolors, sculpture and most importantly, sketching.

"When Taipei Metro started its operations [in 1996], I began sketching on it ... I found that the metro car is a very optimal 'studio'," Chen said, adding that the MRT provides not only a steady environment but also a diversity of faces from all walks of life.

Since then, Chen has devoted more time to sketching in this mobile "studio" filled with an endless stream of "models."

Chen Kiun-tong sketches a passenger on Taipei Metro, described by the artist as a “studio” providing him with a diverse range of subjects from all walks of life, in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Chen Kiun-tong sketches a passenger on Taipei Metro, described by the artist as a “studio” providing him with a diverse range of subjects from all walks of life, in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024

He also expressed his love for sketching people as it has offered him an opportunity to glimpse the unique charm of each individual which fascinates him: "It's not about beauty or ugliness, it's about the intrinsic charm."

When asked what motivates him to continue drawing after starting more than 60 years ago, Chen told CNA that he loves the interaction with both the "models" and the "audience" while feeling a responsibility to share happiness through his art.

"I am happy, the people I draw are happy, people seeing me drawing are happy -- that's my motivation," said Chen.

Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong sketches a commuter on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong sketches a commuter on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong sketches after using a marker pen to outline the contour of his model on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong sketches after using a marker pen to outline the contour of his model on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
The passenger being sketched takes a photo of the sketch drawn by metro artist Chen Kiun-tong on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
The passenger being sketched takes a photo of the sketch drawn by metro artist Chen Kiun-tong on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024

A dual identity: artist and teacher

Beyond being an artist who shares joy through his sketches on and off Taipei metro, Chen was also a teacher who inspires others through his teaching in and out of classroom.

After a 42-year teaching career, he retired from his position as a part-time associate professor in the Department of Industrial Design at National Taipei University of Technology two years ago, with a significant portion of his tenure dedicated to teaching sketching from 2006 to 2022.

Having taught sketching to more than 2,400 students, Chen believes it is his social responsibility to inspire students: "Everyone has a strong passion deep inside them -- they just lack a spark. A teacher is someone who ignites that spark; once the spark occurs, that can drive them."

Over the years, he has encountered individuals claiming to feel distant from art, a perspective he disagrees with. "Some people still hold a certain concept about art, as if it's something very mysterious and profound. I think that's because they haven't truly encountered what art really is," he said.

While some may feel distant from art, others find themselves compelled to engage with it -- some parents force their children to learn how to draw, hoping to acquire certificates or awards that might enhance their prospects for admission to better schools in the future.

As a father and a grandfather, Chen views such behavior as "problematic," believing that parents should allow children to naturally develop their artistic interests. He emphasized that art improves creativity and possesses a healing power, both of which are beneficial for a child's overall learning experience.

The fingers of metro artist Chen Kiun-tong are covered in ink after sketching on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
The fingers of metro artist Chen Kiun-tong are covered in ink after sketching on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong, a retired professor, shares his passion for art with a passenger he just sketched on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong, a retired professor, shares his passion for art with a passenger he just sketched on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024

The artistic journey continues

Chen told CNA that he wants to enhance the general public's sensitivity to art, encouraging more people to dedicate time and resources to the appreciation of different forms of artistic expression.

A robust and vibrant art community can also contribute to the stability of society and strengthen the soft power of the country, he added.

To sketch from a better angle, artist Chen Kiun-tong sits on the floor of a subway car heading to Taipei Main Station in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
To sketch from a better angle, artist Chen Kiun-tong sits on the floor of a subway car heading to Taipei Main Station in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong poses for a photo with two of his sketches at Daan Park Station in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024
Metro artist Chen Kiun-tong poses for a photo with two of his sketches at Daan Park Station in late January. CNA photo Feb. 13, 2024

At 81 years old, this retired professor does not just talk the talk; he walks the walk. In addition to sharing his artistic journey on his Facebook page, "Chen Kiuntong Museum," he makes it a point to often hop on the metro to sketch his next "models," all with the hope of inspiring more children like Amber.

"After discovering that a metro car can serve as an ideal 'studio,' I don't drive my car anymore," Chen said.

Enditem/AW

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