YANGON — Kyee Myintt Saw can still remember the moment his eyes first opened to the beauty of the night. It was a late December evening 16 years ago, and as he was walking down the busy streets of Yangon’s Chinatown, he was bewitched by the lights illuminating the area, especially from the roadside shops and neon signs. That’s when he realized: The night can be painted.
“I instantly fell in love with those lights with the dark background and felt inspired to make this my subject. How strange it is that I hadn’t been aware of it for 59 years,” said the now 75-year-old artist.
As a result of that experience, he soon started putting the night on canvas. In 1999, after 26 years of painting, he held his first solo show, “Yangon Nights,” which was well-received by both the gallery-going public and fellow painters. Ever since, his name has been virtually synonymous with night scenes.
“So far, I have painted nearly 200 canvases on the night, but I’m still not tired of it,” he said recently at his studio in Yangon. On an easel nearby, his latest night painting had just received its final touches.
Also famous for his paintings of marketplaces and nudes, Kyee Myintt Saw is admired by art lovers both at home and abroad for the sensitivity of his style and his mastery of the painting knife, which he uses to produce distinctive impasto artworks.
“We take our hats off to him for his efforts to bring a fresh perspective to familiar scenes,” said Pe Nyunt Wai, another prominent contemporary Myanmar painter who is also a friend of Kyee Myintt Saw. “He has a unique style that gives his paintings a very distinctive quality.”
MyintSoe of the Summit Art Gallery, who has shown Kyee Myintt Saw’s paintings at exhibitions in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, said the veteran painter’s work seems to hold a special attraction for international collectors.
“Few artists paint night scenes, but he does it perfectly. He can catch reflections as well as the vibrancy of the scene he portrays with his thick paint strokes,” said the gallery owner, who is also a painter.
For Kyee Myintt Saw, who fell in love with painting when he was still a primary school student, success hasn’t come easy. Trained as a mathematician, he is entirely self-taught as a painter, learning from books and discussions with fellow artists.
“I feel very small whenever I meet well-trained painters, as I don’t have any formal training myself,” said the retired Yangon Institute of Economics lecturer, who started painting seriously when he was a tutor in 1970s. He said he admires the French colorist Henri Matisse and the post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne for their composition, color relations and brushstrokes.
As a low-paid university teacher and struggling artist, times were often hard. Sometimes, he said, he had to whitewash his older paintings so he could paint over them, because he couldn’t afford to buy a new canvas. In his first two decades as a painter, he joined nearly 60 art exhibitions but sold only a handful of paintings.
“At that time I had no ambition to become successful someday. I did it simply because I wanted to. When I painted, all my worries were gone. Getting famous is another matter altogether,” he explained.
“But if you are devoted to doing something, someday your efforts will be rewarded. That’s what I learned after all these years,” said the artist, who first started making a name for himself with some of his market paintings that were exhibited shortly before his retirement as a lecturer in 1998.
Although he is best known for his night scenes and markets, he insists that they are not the main subjects of his work.
“Light is my true subject. Light, both artificial and natural, and the resulting shadows constantly inspire my imagination. All the rest are just supporting elements.”
Regarding his technique, he admits that he sometimes applies paint almost half an inch thick to enhance the highlights of his paintings.
“Sometimes they’re so vivid that viewers might find them a bit dazzling,” he said with a laugh.
Why is he so obsessed with light? “One thing I’m sure of is that I paint light very affectionately. But I don’t know whether I’ve found it or if am still searching for it,” he said
Currently, Kyee Myintt Saw is busy with preparations for his seventh solo show in Yangon to celebrate his 75th birthday in April. Titled “I’m the night, I’m the light,” the forthcoming exhibition will feature 11 new paintings that he worked on from 2012 until this year, despite his poor health caused by decades of smoking.
“My doctor has ordered me to switch from oil to acrylic, as the smell of oil paint is not good for my health,” said the artist, who has used oil as his medium of choice for most of his life, but now uses acrylic because, he says, he simply can’t stop painting.
“No one asks me to do this. It is the delight I feel when I’m doing my work that keeps me going,” he said.
But this delight goes deeper than simple worldly pleasure.
“After all these years of devotion, I have come to realize that it is my destiny to be an artist,” he said, adding that painting has brought him greater peace of mind than anything else in his life.
“There’s no better companion than art. Not my wife, not my children and not my possessions,” he said. “It’s art that enables me to survive the hardships of life.”
Kyee Myintt Saw’s “I’m the night, I’m the light” will be open to the public at Lokanat Art Gallery in Yangon from April 23 to 27.
This article first appeared in the April 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.