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Singaporeans Living Abroad: Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist

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Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist
Sandra Lee has moved more than 30 times since the age of 18. She has lived in a variety of countries and in a wide assortment of accommodations, ranging from little village cottages to a converted backyard toilet, a barn and even boats.
Sandra was never encouraged to take up art, growing up in Malaysia.
A volatile relationship with her mother resulted in her heading to hotel school in Switzerland, where she was forced to learn a new language and find her way in a totally different environment.
It would stand her in good stead for her future travels.
Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2003 Painting
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Her fix was to immerse herself in the culture.
Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2006 Painting

“I got a job as a waitress in a hotel, and picked up the language in two months.”

She adopted the same sort of immersion methods when she was living in Shanghai and in Spain.
Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2009 Shanghai Studio

“In Shanghai it was horrendously hard. I took Chinese lessons and it took me more than a year before I could get by. I remember ordering noodles in a café. The cashier asked for 10 Yuan, but I didn’t understand what he was saying. Two guys at a table nearby tried to help out by crossing their index fingers (an approximation for “shi” which is 10 in Chinese). I was wondering why they were showing me the sign of the cross!”

Sandra Lee seeking her calling
Most of the time, Sandra is quite content to stay in her atelier and create her paintings.

"I always wanted to do art, so I thought advertising was the next closest thing. But I couldn’t get a job. So, I interviewed for a sales position at the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, where I met a lot of agency people, and was offered a job."

Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2012 Painting
After three years in the advertising agency, Sandra realised it wasn’t the kind of art she wanted to do.
A fortuitous meeting with the late Malaysian Artist Victor Chin in Singapore led to her joining Lasalle.
Sandra initially thought of studying at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).
Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2013 - 2015 SG Bukit Panjang Studio
She reckoned she might have comprehension issues at NAFA so she opted to study in Lasalle.
Tips on living overseas by Sandra Lee

“It’s important to have some friends in any country you move to, so that it’s easier to understand the place better.”

Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2012 Painting
In Shanghai, where she was living in a tiny attic in a subdivided villa in the French Concession, Sandra would be holed up with her art, but would emerge regularly for yoga classes.

"I live very frugally, and my only indulgence was yoga. The group met often and we got on well. We still meet up. There was also another group of Malaysian girls in Shanghai who I got on with."

Sandra, who is now a Singaporean, found living on the island quite expensive. She wanted to set down roots somewhere. She looked nearby at Phuket, Bali, Johor.
Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2018 - Calahonda Rented Studio

"Then, I had three suggestions from different people to try Spain. I had a good friend from England who had moved there and the advice was to head to Malaga. It had nice weather and the rentals were cheap; a two-bedroom, two-storey house was going for E500 (S$750) a month, while my 2-bedroom HDB flat was costing me S$1,800."

"When I had an exhibition in Lille, France, in 2015, I saw how artists were working in Europe. They had spaces to work in with proper studios. I have to work in Europe, I said to myself."

When the opportunity arose, Sandra grabbed it and headed to Spain, in 2016.
She leased a cottage in a village in Spain and the environment was well suited for her art.
Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2017 - Spain Estepona Ketch Studio

"I learnt Spanish from watching television and reading the subtitles. I learnt how to play the ukulele in Spain and performed with a group."

When the lease ran out on her cottage, she heard about a 50-foot boat that was vacant for eight months and decided to live onboard. She used the hull as her studio.
One key thing her various travels has taught her is to be flexible.
She’s currently residing in England, in an old Edwardian House. It’s idyllic with a back door opening onto a large grass patch beyond which runs a river.
Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2024 - UK Southbourne Studio

"But the house is old, there are gaps in the floorboard and the roof leaks."

You have to be careful with the requirements in each country, she warns.

"In Spain it’s very bureaucratic. You must have the right forms and follow a proper sequence. Buying property in Spain can also be quite dodgy. When house-hunting, I came upon a nice house. But there were two title deeds associated with it. One for the house itself, and another for the land. So, it’s important to have a good lawyer."

Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2021 - CWAO - Childrens Biennale - National Gallery Singapore
With each move, Sandra’s art evolves, and her work at the National Gallery Singapore and exhibitions have caught the attention of international customers.

"I’m still old school. I want to paint. I don’t have a website. But I do have a good gallerist in Jazz Ong of Ode To Art in Singapore which provides me with regular commissions that help pay the bills."

So far, the longest Sandra Lee has been in any one place is about three years.
Sandra Lee, The Nomadic Artist - 2006 - SG - Telok Kurau Studio
Sandra Lee’s stuff has never been fully unpacked (something or other always left in a box).
And boxes always collapsed and stored, on the ready that it might be used again.
As a globally mobile artist, Sandra, has learnt to never paint herself into a corner.

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