The relationship between the sport of polo and the revered St. Regis brand has long been regarded as one of unparalleled kinship, dating as far back to the early 20th century. The swanky new The St. Regis Kuala Lumpur celebrates this longstanding tradition with an exceptional commissioned artwork by respected Welsh artist, Mark Evans.
Strategically placed at two areas – the front desk and concierge – in the grand lobby, the specially commissioned diptych features two hand-etched murals depicting a pulsating polo game. Upon entering the room, one will immediately experience a gripping sensation, almost akin to stepping inside an exhilarating polo game. “What Mark captures very well is the point of contact and energy. You can see the players and the horses are about to crash into each other, and that their mallets are raised and they are about to hit the ball. It’s all about that moment of capturing the energy and point of contact that is building up,” explains Carmen Chua, CEO of ONE IFC, who commissioned Evans for the artwork.
Chua acknowledges that equestrian art in the past was usually associated with being dull and uninspiring but Evans has managed to breathe new life into it through his artwork. The dynamic duo, who have forged a trusted friendship when they first met in 2009, began discussing about realising their vision in 2010. It took six gruelling years to complete before the specially commissioned diptych was finally revealed to the public in May 2016.
The process itself is a long, laborious effort as Evans had to first break the rules on how the sport of polo is photographed. “It is a very dangerous game and the photographers are usually in a safe zone away from the field but that was not going to work for me as I wouldn’t be able to capture the energy. I needed to be right in the heart of the action. So I lay on the ground with my camera and let the horses ride over me. I wanted to capture the action from the ball’s point of view,” Evans, who clad in a leather jacket of his own, explains. The result is a rare visceral view of the sport of polo from a never-been-seen-before angle as the ball was placed just three feet away from the camera lens in order to capture the moment prior to contact. “It’s about taking people on a journey to somewhere they have never been before. I don’t think anyone has ever walked into the middle of a polo game,” Evans reasons.
Once he narrowed down the images to the select two with Chua, Evans travelled to Italy in search of the finest cow hides. The creative process soon turned technical as the process of prepping the leather using various upholstering, waxing and tanning techniques took six months before Evans even had a chance to bring his knives out.
It took three years for Evans to complete the hand carving of the two panels using his unconventional tools of knives and scalpel blades. “I have hundreds of knives, but I only have 20 that I use frequently and 12 of those are my favourites,” he says. Evans’ technique is unique as it involves the removal and micro-sculpting of the leather to within a tenth of a millimetre. The method itself borders obsession, as he etches right through the polished surface, teasing out tiny microfibre of suede, a refined skill which requires painstaking precision and incessant focus.
The pressure is further fuelled by the prospect that each incision made is irreversible as opposed to a painter who is able to correct any mistakes easily. Evans’ foray into this new medium of art was the result of an accident that occurred while he was trying to remove a blood stain on his leather jacket using his knife. “It’s been 16 years since I started working with leather and as you’re working on it for hours and hours, you become obsessed with it. I’m carving into something that was once alive and now I’m creating something beautiful out of it. What’s visceral about leather is that it is not synthetic, it is real,” Evans states before adding on, “I think there’s something about skin as well, when we first meet and shake hands, the first point of contact is skin. So conceptually for me, I love working with leather.”
Aptly named Grace Thunders, Evans describes the artwork’s name as a play on oxymoron. “Grace is a word that speaks of elegance, beauty and swiftness. That is how horses move. They are very graceful but when you’re lying on the ground or riding in a game of polo, it’s dangerous and actually quite brutal,” he explains earnestly. Despite the daunting prospect that there is no room for error, the biggest challenge for Evans while completing this artwork lies in the installation process. “Photographing the images, laying it on the ground, creating the work – that’s not a problem. But the installation was terrifying because I’d never done anything this big and it was out of my control,” he openly admits. As the two large panels were too big for his studio, Evans created the artwork in three parts – dividing it into the leg section, centre section and top section.
He describes his collaboration with Chua as a really good experience, as they constantly challenged each other and that the tension of ideas motivated him. “You don’t always get that when you have a commission but with Carmen, it was great. We had this grand idea and we were able to execute it,” he says candidly.
As a young boy who grew up in a family farm in North Wales, Evans is surprisingly allergic to horses. “I’m constantly in this battle with my allergy to horses and now my studio is on a farm with horses,” he laughs. “Horses have enabled mankind to travel and there’s a very special bond between men and horses. It’s an international language so I think the game of polo really speaks that language,” he sums it up deftly.