Learning > Inspiration

Long-stay patient at IMH paints art that sells for thousands

Theresa Tan on 22 Jun 2019

The Straits Times


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SINGAPORE - Mr Sim Kah Lim, 51, introduces himself as a master artist.


He goes on to tell you that he is "as proud as a peacock and as sincere as a deer" when people appreciate his paintings. From someone else, such confidence might be jarring, but he has every reason to be proud of his art.


Mr Sim suffers from schizophrenia, a major psychotic illness, and has been hospitalised at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for the past 36 years.


He paints from memory and today his paintings sell for between $1,200 and $8,000, said his younger sister Cindy Sim.


Now his painting of the Istana during an open house is being reproduced as a postcard for the Istana 150 Roving Exhibition, which was launched on June 1 to commemorate the Istana's 150th anniversary.


Another of his paintings, of the Singapore River, will be used as the cover of the upcoming National Council of Social Service (NCSS) annual report.


Ms Sim, 50, said her brother started drawing when he was four years old. He is the oldest of three children of a carpenter and a housewife and by the time he was 10, the self-taught artist was drawing billboard advertisements as part-time work, she said.


But while his art improved, Mr Sim's mental well-being plunged. He was bullied in school, Ms Sim said, and would refuse to go, instead shutting himself at home. In his teens, his father would take him to the Singapore River, where a group of artists gathered to paint regularly. He would try to pick up tips from the experts.


Then, he started talking to himself. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 13 or 14 years old.


At the age of 15, he jumped from the corridor of their sixth-floor flat.


Ms Sim, a businesswoman, said: "Kah Lim is very lucky to survive the fall and he can still walk."


When asked how he fell, Mr Sim said he heard voices in his head telling him he was becoming more stupid as he grew older, so he jumped as he "did not like the voices". Hearing voices, hallucinations and delusions are symptoms of schizophrenia.


Since that harrowing incident, he has been one of the longest-staying patients at the IMH. Until last year, he went home only on special occasions like Chinese New Year or Mother's Day.


The hospital has about 1,000 long-stay patients, who are there for more than a year and and have limited discharge options.


At the IMH, he paints twice a week, often from his memory, pictures or his own imagination. Many of his artworks are of scenes of Singapore in the 1970s before his mental health started going downhill.


Over the years, he has painted at least a few hundred pieces, Ms Sim said, some of which are displayed at the IMH.


Besides the painting of the Istana open house, which Mr Sim did pro bono, the Istana has also bought two of his works.


His painting of the Istana open house was also used for President Halimah Yacob's Chinese New Year card this year.


An Istana spokesman said: "President Halimah has been featuring the artworks from voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) to raise awareness of their social causes. The artworks serve as a platform to showcase the VWOs' artistic talents and passions."


In early June, Ms Anita Fam, president of the NCSS, also bought a painting by Mr Sim with her own funds that now hangs in her office.


She said: "I bought it as it is very good. I think he's a very talented artist and the fact that he was in IMH for over 30 years and was able to find a voice through his art makes the painting all the more special."


Since last year, as his condition has improved, he has been able to stay at his sister's for longer stretches of time. Now, he is with her for three weeks and spends the other week at IMH, she said.


Ms Sim, who is married with one grown-up daughter, said: "The aim is that he can eventually be discharged from IMH to live at home."


Last year, Goshen Art Gallery held an exhibition of Mr Sim's work and response was "overwhelming", said Goshen director Jack Yu, with two-thirds of the 30 or so pieces displayed sold.


Goshen runs a social enterprise, ArtSE, which trains people with disabilities, among others, in art, in the hopes of helping them find employment.


Eminent artist Choo Keng Kwang, 88, was introduced to Mr Sim last year and has been sharing ways to improve his craft. He described Mr Sim as talented and eager to better his art.


Ms Sim said her brother gives money from his painting proceeds to their elderly parents, describing him as "a generous and good boy".


She said: "His life is all about art and nothing else."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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