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Charity, Miscellaneous

World Famous Artist Expresses Hope with Art after an Extended Stay in Singapore

The sudden outbreak of the pandemic had dashed famous sculpting artist Drago Marin Cherina’s plans to seek further prospects in China. During his 2-year stay in Singapore, his health unexpectedly took a turn for the worse...



World-famous sculpting artist Drago Marin Cherina continues to conscientiously create many art pieces during his stay in Singapore while he undergoes medical treatment. His love for art “numbs” him of the physical pain he is going through. (Photo by Chan May Ching)

It’s finally time to go home! After going through a tumultuous journey and overcoming multiple difficulties, world-renowned Croatian sculpting artist Drago Marin Cherina managed to fly back to Taiwan with his Taiwanese friend Nancy in April 2022, ending his arduous journey of living away from home.

The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago had left Cherina and Nancy stranded in Singapore for longer than expected. During their stay, Cherina suffered from depression, was hospitalised, and even owed hospital bills. Despite these difficult circumstances, he was resilient and managed to seek solace through painting.

In November 2021, 22 of Cherina’s works reflecting the pandemic were exhibited in the Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre (HYC). With a urine bag attached to him, Cherina endured the pain while expressing his reflections through paint strokes on the canvases. His works have thoroughly reflected the value as well as the depth and realness of life amidst a gruelling pandemic.


Cherina’s works express his reflections on the pandemic and the hope present in life. His 22 works exhibited in HYC showcase various masked, faceless portraits. (Photo by Bong Kian Hin)

An Extended Stay in Singapore without Family

The affinity that led Cherina to Tzu Chi started from some well-wishes back in August 2021. In the spring of 2020, Cherina and Nancy were transiting through Singapore from Taiwan to wait for their working visas in China to be approved. Unfortunately, in the face of rising COVID-19 cases, China went into lockdown, and the two of them extended their stay here.

Initially, they held onto the hope that the situation would improve promptly so that they could continue pursuing a career in arts in China. Unbeknownst to them, the virus spread rapidly worldwide and many countries implemented strict measures such as lockdowns. This was a dilemma for Cherina and Nancy, who had been staying abroad in multiple countries. The worries and uncertainties amidst the global situation could have culminated in Cherina suffering from benign prostatic hyperplasia, with him needing a urine bag for prolonged periods.

In Singapore, away from home, they have no friends and relatives to rely on. Fortunately, their friend in Taiwan sought help from the Tzu-Chi Foundation (Singapore), hoping that Tzu Chi could render some support to them. Upon receiving the request for help, volunteer Lim Chwee Lian and Goh Lam Kia visited Cherina and Nancy with a gift pack conveying the foundation’s well-wishes.

In the process of interacting with them, they realised that Cherina’s illness meant that he had to carry a urine bag with him everywhere, and his legs were swollen from water retention. Apart from the physical pain brought about by the illness, the exorbitant medical bills in Singapore had drained their savings and Cherina had owed the hospital tens of thousands of dollars.

In order to save costs, Cherina and Nancy stopped renting their work studio. As a result, Cherina’s suppressed emotions could not be relieved without a creative space, which further demoralised him.

“Look at this photo. A year ago, he was still full of energy, worlds apart from how he is today.” Nancy took out her phone and shared pictures depicting how Cherina was still in the pink of health at the start of the pandemic, they could even take occasional walks to relax their mind. After sharing, Nancy became emotional and elaborated on how one can be poor but not sickly. She realised how life could be so fleeting after Cherina fell ill in a land away from home.

Even though Tzu Chi did not open a file to render aid to them eventually, the volunteers continued to stay by their side. Volunteer Goh Lam Kia never expected a simple trip to check in on them to culminate into deeper conversations down the road, and for it to bring an internationally-renowned artist closer to Tzu Chi.


Volunteers Lim Chwee Lian (right) and Goh Lam Kia visiting Cherina at his home to express their care and concern and convey their well-wishes. (Photo by Goh Lam Kia)

Care, Company and Assistance

In terms of medical bills, Cherina was lucky to meet a few kind-hearted doctors, who empathised with his situation and provided him with free consultations. Despite that, his hospitalisation and medical bills remained a looming concern. The hospital also warned that he would be rejected treatment if he could not settle his bills.

From a comfortable life in the past to living from hand to mouth, the drastic change had been unsettling. Cherina was in fact someone well-known who had opportunities to interact with famous personalities. However, after falling ill without anyone knowing, seeking help became difficult.

The pandemic has also severely impacted the arts and culture sector. With the lack of revenue streams, people can only cut costs. Cherina is no exception - he reduced his frequency of medical appointments, as each appointment can cost up to a few thousand dollars. For cleaning of wounds and putting on the urine bag, Cherina had to do it himself or seek help from Nancy. He had to endure large amounts of pain as he was not going for appointments as often as desired. He even mentioned, “So long as the wounds are not inflamed, it should not be too big of a problem.”

One morning in November 2021, volunteer Goh Lam Kia received a call for help from Nancy. Through the phone, he was told that Cherina was experiencing bleeding, could not pass urine and was in immense pain. Nancy and Cherina did not know what to do but did not want to seek treatment because they did not have much savings left. The anxiety and helplessness in Nancy’s voice was truly heart-wrenching. Volunteer Goh Lam Kia immediately sought help from Tzu Chi International Medical Association’s doctors based in Singapore and was informed that Cherina could not delay treatment any longer.

Volunteer Goh conveyed the doctors’ words to Cherina and informed him of how severe his condition was, yet Cherina was hesitant about seeking treatment at the hospital. At that point in time, Cherina was about to go into shock and could no longer converse clearly. Volunteer Goh did not wait any longer to send him to the hospital.

When Cherina reached the hospital, he was in so much pain that he could barely talk. The doctor rushed him into the operating theatre to remove the internal haemorrhage. Cherina was in critical condition as the doctor removed over 3 litres of blood and urine. After resting for 2 hours in the emergency room, Cherina wanted to be discharged but was disallowed by the doctor as he had to stay for further observation until his condition stabilised.

Amidst the pandemic, the strict visitation rules at hospitals meant that only family members could visit, one at a time. As time ticked by, volunteer Goh was wondering why Cherina’s hospitalisation procedures were not completed. Turns out, Nancy truthfully conveyed that the hospital was liaising with Cherina regarding the payment of medical bills. Volunteer Goh quickly urged the hospital to arrange for hospitalisation and assisted in paying the deposit.

After Cherina was admitted into the ward, Nancy said with great relief, “Thank you Lord for bringing Cherina back from the brink of death, and thank you to the brothers and sisters from Tzu Chi for saving him.”

Nancy then stayed in the hospital with Cherina that night and never left.

Truth be told, Nancy was also enduring much turmoil. Just when she’s grappling with the various issues facing her and Cherina, her elderly father had a fall at home and was eager to have her return to Taiwan. Yet, Cherina who was stranded in Singapore due to his illness, needed to be taken care of. At that time, Taiwan imposed a restriction on foreigners’ entry due to the pandemic. Hence, it meant that only Nancy alone could return to Taiwan without Cherina. Cherina had asked Nancy to go back to Taiwan to visit her parents on several occasions but that placed Nancy in a dilemma. In the end, she could not bear to leave Cherina alone and chose to stay behind because Cherina not only needed treatment physically, but he also needed comfort spiritually.

After being hospitalised for two days, Cherina requested to be discharged on the third day because for every extra day of hospitalisation, it meant a heavy financial burden. He thus chose to recuperate at home. On their way back home, Tzu Chi also brought them to a community clinic for their second dose of COVID-19 vaccine. That was another episode of struggle. 

It was a mere 50-meters from the carpark to the clinic. However as there was no wheelchair available, Cherina had to make several pauses before he finally reached the clinic. After completing the second dose of vaccination, he was exhausted and totally worn out. When they were brought home safely, the sight of them supporting each other and gradually disappearing around the corner greatly upset volunteer Goh Lam Kia.   


On December 2021, staff from the Tzu Chi Charity Development Department and volunteer Goh Lam Kia (first from the right) visit Cherina (left) at his residence to render care and find out about his needs. (Photo provided by Goh Lam Kia)

Illustrating Hope through an Art Exhibition Open to the Public

After recovering from a serious illness, Cherina found a person who would kindly lend him the basement of a shopping mall to paint by chance. With a space that allows him to paint freely, it fulfilled Cherina’s soul, granted him to momentarily forget his illness, and regained his long-lost self-confidence. Thereafter, through an amazing affinity which happened during a visit to the Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre, coupled with efforts from several parties, it all led to a wonderful collaboration of having an international artist’s public art exhibition at the Youth Centre.

Nancy shared, “As long as he (Cherina) is able to paint, he will have a place of solace. His mood and medical condition will eventually improve.” He is also able to sell his paintings online to help relieve some stress from his dire financial situation.

With the intention to let Cherina and Nancy relax, volunteer Goh drove them to Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre in November. Strolling through the Youth Centre, the tall and spacious architecture, the beautiful view of the pond and the serenity of the reading spaces delighted Cherina. He repeatedly said that it was the happiest day of his time in Singapore.


In the company of volunteer Goh Lam Kia, Cherina visits Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre for the first time. The centre, filled with humanistic culture has sparked Cherina’s idea of holding an exhibition there. (Photo provided by Goh Lam Kia)

The space filled with humanistic culture ignited a glimmer of hope for the artist. He expressed his wish of holding an art exhibition there to convey his reflections and thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic to the public and to communicate with young audience. It turned out that in the early days of the pandemic, Cherina had created 22 art pieces portraying faceless dawning face masks. Reflecting the pandemic through his artwork, he had always hoped that the paintings would one day be exhibited.

After much discussion, the idea of holding an art exhibition at the Youth Centre was supported by Tzu Chi CEO Low Swee Seh and entrepreneur Ng Yew Teik, who had the 22 canvas artwork mounted onto wood frames individually.  

However, it coincided with the period when Tzu Chi volunteers were usually busy preparing for the upcoming scheduled annual Year-End Blessing ceremony. Hence, the schedule of activities at the Youth Centre was already full. Nonetheless, Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre Manager Lim Choon Choon and volunteers from the deco group overcame difficulties and worked hard to find a slot for the exhibition. After the art canvases were mounted onto frames, the organising team gathered and assembled the display frames. With the help and cooperation from everyone, all 22 paintings were hung and displayed in the Youth Centre within a short two weeks.


The end of the year 2021 is filled with much preparation work for the upcoming annual Year-End Blessing ceremony. Volunteers of the deco group take time out to set up the art pieces one by one. (Photo by Lee Chia Yee)


The art exhibition is supported by entrepreneur Ng Yew Teik (left) who helped mount the 22 canvases onto wooden frames. (Photo by Goh Lam Kia)

In November 2021, The Merlion Story art exhibition was officially put on display at the Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre. Coincidentally, the Youth Centre was celebrating its second anniversary of establishment and the art exhibition blended through the serious of activities seamlessly.

The 22 huge paintings took centre stage and stood in the central corridor of the Humanistic Youth Centre, welcoming people from all directions in a silent fashion. Each painting depicts faceless people wearing masks. Some looked fearful, some were in sorrow and some were nervous. All nudging people to reflect.

Art not only reveals aesthetic concepts but also possesses healing power. Through painting, Cherina was able to relieve his physical and mental pain. His paintings convey his reflections of the pandemic and also doubled up as his spiritual diary. Cherina said, “The virus is only a piece of cloud condensed into a layer of fog which attempts to block our pure heart. Only by clearing away this layer of fog would our hearts be bright and clear.” 


Paintings depicting faceless people wearing masks silently call out to people to reflect. (Photo by Bong Kian Hin)

Apart from the art exhibition, the Youth Centre also organised an exchange session for “The Merlion Story” on December 9th, inviting Cherina to have a face-to-face interaction with young artists. In the good old days, the huge auditorium could have accommodated 500 seats. Yet at that time, it could only allow 50 guests to participate with everyone putting on a mask. At a time when masking up was mandatory, it was even more meaningful to hold an art sharing session in relation to the pandemic.


A painting presented by Cherina to Tzu Chi and is received by CEO Low Swee Seh (second from the left). The small boat in the painting symbolises a sail of compassion that rescues all those who are suffering. Second on the right is Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre’s Manager Lim Choon Choon. (Photo by Bong Kian Hin)

Returning Home as Originally Planned   

Cherina thanked Tzu Chi for the help rendered – fulfilling his wish and allowing him to convey his inner thoughts. This connection had also given the person in charge of the hospital, which treated Cherina previously, an opportunity to access his paintings and be deeply moved. Cherina donated all the 22 paintings to the Group that owns the hospital so that those paintings can be displayed across the Group’s hospitals to remind the public of the warnings of the pandemic.

In the spring of 2022, Cherina’s Taiwan visa was finally approved. Hence, the journey home was finally not too far away. After thanking all the friends that have helped them, Cherina and Nancy boarded the flight to Taiwan in early April, embarking on their journey home as they bid goodbye to two years of solemn life which felt like living in a trapped cage.

Before parting, volunteer Goh reminded Cherina that he must get in touch with Tzu Chi volunteers in Kaohsiung when he returns to Taiwan. He must seek medical treatment at Tzu Chi Hospital to be well again and regain the source of inspiration for his creation.

 


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