Sarawakian transforms Kuching into an art form

IF you ever come across Gladys Teo-Simpson sitting comfortably on her foldable chair by the road with a sketch pad, take a quick peek — you’ll be blown away by her sketches.

The 52-year-old Malaysian, who has been based in Jakarta since November 2019, has been capturing the hearts of Facebook users with incredibly detailed sketches of her favourite buildings in her hometown of Kuching.

Having spent 15 years in the fast-paced world of advertising, the former art director took a break from work, taught herself how to paint and began dabbling in acrylics and oils.

Her artistic journey started in 2012 when she began sketching pet portraits. Then, one of her friends tagged her in an Urban Sketching post.

“It’s a non-profit organisation comprising a global community of artists who practise on-location drawing in cities, towns and villages,” explained Gladys, who admitted that completing a sketch within an hour sitting by the road gives her a real adrenaline rush.

During the first two months, Gladys sketched every day for practice and out of passion.

Her first urban sketch, she recalled, was a view from the window of the Sofitel Plaza Hotel in Hanoi during a holiday.

“When I draw, I need to know the history behind the building such as when the building was built or what the building functioned as. The concept of Urban Sketching is basically drawing live and this is very intriguing to me.”

Onlookers were mostly “extremely curious”, said a laughing Gladys, as they often stopped to stare at a seemingly strange woman perched on the side of the road with a sketchpad.

Though she was initially very uncomfortable with said onlookers staring over her shoulder, Gladys confessed that after years of sketching, she is now comfortable and capable of multitasking — sketching while making small talk with curious strangers.

A sketch of Kuching’s iconic Ting & Ting supermarket. (Gladys Teo-Simpson pic)


Her inspiration in sketching historical places in Kuching first sparked after she started sketching portraits of her parents whenever she was back home.

Then, her life and art took a different turn.

“After my mother passed away in 2017, it was a rather difficult time for my father so I would take him out for ice cream or simply to places which held deep memories for him.

“When I sketched the famous Old Courthouse in Kuching, I had actually brought him out for lunch. I told him to give me a bit of time, then I skipped out and did a quick outline of the courthouse.”

Sketching the outlines of a building is Gladys’s go-to tactic when she doesn’t have much time on her hands.

With the outline done and ready, she will then finish up the piece and fill in the colours in the comfort of her home.

“Being an urban sketcher, I always try to stick to the main rule, which is ‘no copying from photos of online portals’,” she said.

Memories of Gladys having ice cream with her father at Sunny Hill Ice Cream. (Gladys Teo-Simpson pic)

Having last set foot in Malaysia in February 2020, Gladys longs to be home but appreciates that her time away gives her the chance to see Kuching from a fresh and different perspective, and new sights to sketch.

During the Covid-19 lockdown in Indonesia, the talented sketch artist even came up with a sketch journal, documenting her life during the pandemic.

As she was mostly confined to the four walls of her home, the journal featured sketches of plants, her pet dog and various scenes of life.

One of her more memorable sketches from that period is of a medical team dressed in Hazmat suits. According to Gladys, medical authorities had come to her home to test her husband for Covid-19.

While patiently waiting for the pandemic to ease and the travel ban to be lifted, Gladys is working on her latest project — sketching the many vendors with colourful jobs in her neighbourhood of Kemang.

“In Kemang, there are many food vendors who carry their wares around. It won’t be just a sketch because if they are willing to be interviewed, I could also do a story on their business,” she said.

Gladys shared that she has a couple of friends who run their own galleries in Kemang, which prompted her to discuss working with them on organising a small exhibition portraying the lives of Kemang vendors.

This is fuelled by her belief that the vendors will then get the much-needed support to wade through tough pandemic days.

One of Gladys sketches; Pak Latif who makes ‘toge goreng’ with peanut sauce. (Gladys Teo-Simpson pic)

Big dreams and projects aside, Gladys’s connection with art remains a deep and personal one.

More often than not, it functions as her own form of therapy.

“Sketching is my form of meditation because I’m completely in the zone during my sketches.

“By looking through my sketchbooks, it gives me the feeling akin to time travelling. Plus, I think it keeps me young,” laughed Gladys. -FMT


This article first appeared in Free Malaysia Today.