From Engineering Physics to Visual Artist: Elaine Kuok ’95
Brenda Whately, Director of Alumni Relations, UWCSEA
24 November 2016
Elaine Kuok is a full-time visual artist with a degree in Engineering Physics from Cornell University and a Master’s in International Economics from SOAS, University of London.
While in Middle School at UWCSEA, Elaine studied art, but didn’t pursue it as a subject in Grade 9, 10 or the IB years of Grade 11 and 12, because her parents wanted her to direct herself towards subjects that they felt would lead to ‘more useful’ university degrees. She credits art teacher Mr Teo Eng Seng with fostering her love of art in those early years and beyond. She says, “He would let me paint in the classroom outside of art class hours. He critiqued my work and encouraged me to continue doing art even after he was no longer officially my teacher. He still does even now, through social media!”
When she applied to Cornell, which she describes on arrival as, “a shock to the system coming from tropical Singapore to the merciless winters of upstate New York,” she had intended to enter the architecture programme. The application however required an art portfolio which she didn’t have. She says, “I cast around for something else that, in my imaginings anyway, might have a visual element. It came down to materials science or engineering physics and I ended up choosing the latter. While physics was interesting, the classes I most enjoyed were my art and language electives.”
While at Cornell, Elaine met her now husband. After graduation they moved to Capetown, South Africa and then to Oxford and London in the UK. Craving the kind of multicultural environment she had had at UWCSEA, and increasingly interested in international affairs, she decided to pursue her Master’s degree in International Economics at SOAS and then work for the UN. With her Master’s degree in hand, she was recruited into UNESCO’s Young Professionals Programme where she worked on science ethics. She says, “While I found the job not particularly riveting, the diversity of cultures in the workplace was endlessly fascinating.” Working at the UNESCO Headquarters also meant that Elaine was located in Paris where she was able to spend a lot of time sketching at the museums, immersing herself in world-class art throughout Europe, and gaining proficiency in French.
Over the next several years, Elaine and her husband lived on five different continents, following their evolving careers. Like Elaine, her husband has also changed his career path more than once; in his case from academic physicist to diplomat, to writer and documentary-film maker. Elaine says she was very happy moving around because her love of languages almost equals her love of art, and she enjoyed trying to learn the local language of all the locations they lived in.
In 2006 Elaine and her husband moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was here that she finally took the plunge and went into art full-time. She says, “Santa Fe had a thriving art community and it was easy to get plugged in. The area had such a distinctive landscape and an energy that seeps into your bones, making you feel like you have to respond to it somehow. My years there were a really special time. The encouragement from my husband and the art community there in Santa Fe convinced me that this was my path.”
Elaine has since settled into New York and continues to pursue her career in art. She says, “New York City is electric. Stimulus comes in so many forms, you see so many different things and meet so many different people. My goal is to express that energy through my paintings and sculptures.” Primarily a figurative painter, more recently Elaine has expanded into abstraction. She has also developed a strong affinity for clay sculpture and spends at least four hours a day, five days a week, sculpting, devoting herself as much to sculpture as to painting.
Reflecting on her time at UWCSEA, Elaine says, “I’m glad my parents chose UWCSEA, because it exposed me to so many different cultures and to get-up-and-go people with a sense of global civic-mindedness that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere.” And when asked what advice she would offer to students and alumni interested in art as a career, she says, “Art is certainly not a smooth ride. I put in long hours every day and the pay is uneven. And when I’m not painting or sculpting, I’ve always got my present and future projects at the back of my mind. That’s all right with me because I view art-making not as work, but as a necessary part of myself. My advice is only pursue art if you can’t imagine not doing it, and if you do go the art route, then put everything you have into it because it is incredibly rewarding in and of itself.”