Heritage from the East, Inspiration for Artist Michelle Ma

Imagine beautifully textured art, steeped in memories and history, painted with passion, each with its own story to tell. That is what you’ll find when you look through Michelle Ma’s collection. Born in Manchuria, Michelle grew up observing the cultural and political changes in China, an experience that deeply influences everything she paints. Her canvasses depict history, emotions and her connection with her homeland.

Michelle’s love for art started at a very young age, it wasn’t a pursuit that was encouraged. Instead she studied English in LiaoNing Province, North East China. The only daughter, being born when the one child policy had come into effect, Michelle’s parents had lined up a job for her at a school after graduation. But Michelle had other ideas. At the age of 22, she gave up a life of stability, guaranteed income and the comforts of home, hopping a train to Beijing to find out where life would lead her. While thoughts of Manchuria bring to mind wide open spaces and grassy knolls, the city Michelle grew up in actually had a population of 4 million. But this was less than half of the population of Beijing. It was huge in comparison, daunting to some even if you did have family and friends living there. Michelle went to Beijing not knowing anyone.

Michelle Ma Art
Michelle Ma in front of one of the paintings in her first collection. This was concubine Zhen of Emperor GuangXu of the Qing Dynasty in China who was forced to jump into a well at age 24 because she was thought to be too progressive and forward thinking. At that time, she could have introduced a revolution which would have rescued the Qing Dynasty, the last Dynasty in China. Image by Mary Gomez Camba.


She found a job working in a small company doing marketing development for a start-up in the business of English education but a chance encounter and a conversation with a stranger on a train trip home the year after changed the course of her life. Because of her excellent command of English, she was asked to join the team building the biggest petrochemical project between Shell and China National Offshore Oil Company in Daya Bay, GuangDong Province.

This painting by Michelle was auctioned at the Australian International School in support of the Singapore Cancer Society, a cause that is dear to her heart because her mother-in-law lost her life to breast cancer when her husband was only 14. Michelle was never able to meet her.
This painting by Michelle was auctioned at an event organised by the Australian International School in support of the Singapore Cancer Society, a cause that is dear to her heart because her mother-in-law lost her life to breast cancer when her husband was only 13. Michelle was never able to meet her. Image by Ken Tan, Within Images Studio.


For this role, she moved from Beijing to the south of China, working on the project for four and a half years. She missed the life in Beijing though and when she had decided to move back, she noticed a job posting in Shell that she applied for. After a few rounds of interviews and strong recommendations by colleagues around the world, she got the job. Shell then relocated her to Singapore.

Her first years in Singapore were lonely. Again, she was in a city where she knew no one. Homesick and working hard, she spent her days commuting to an off shore island where the Shell Refinery was located. She worked in contracting and procurement as a shipping charterer, moving up the ladder until she was responsible for managing tanker shipping routes of huge shipping containers, a segment on which USD$30 million was spent per year. She still missed her homeland and in her spare time took up painting again. It was another chance encounter that found her a husband, at a random occasion that she had been asked to go to in order to meet someone who was offering a room for rent. The person she was meeting never showed up but instead she met her husband.

Michelle Ma Art
This painting depics her longing for home one wintry day in FuShun. Image by Ken Tan, Within Images Studio.


Six years later, now with two children, Michelle quit her rewarding but demanding role as a charterer for Shell to spend time with her babies. She had begun to enjoy the corporate life less and less because of the emotional struggle between family, work and life. She choose to “give herself back” to the people most important to her. While motherhood was a gift not to be missed, Michelle still wanted to explore other avenues and painting became her outlet. Working with a palette knife, her style of art took shape, inspired by her upbringing and memories of the past, she began painting and gaining a following. Yet another random connection through Linked In gave her a first commission of work and following that, she was given the opportunity to join a joint exhibition at The Substation.

Michelle Ma Art
This painting depicts a Tibetan child from an experience Michelle had on a trip to Tibet in 2009. Image by Ken Tan, Within Images Studio.

Of her art, Michelle says,

“People often asked me where I get my inspiration from. The answer is very long actually as it is all based in emotion, moments and cultural heritage… Topics close to my heart or stories I knew or was once told by my late Manchurian grandmother. Sadly the Manchurian Culture finds it hard to thrive in the modern society. China is big and Chinese history is long. I am inspired by that special period in recent Chinese history between the late nineteenth century till the mid last century (late 1800 till mid 1900) because my family members went through a lot of hard times due to their family background in the macro social revolution. As a painter, I need to record those emotions down for myself and for anyone who is interested in China and its recent history. All my painted subjects have their own unique stories behind them. I hand that story in a note to each of my collectors in celebration of the special emotional bonding between themselves and their family now and in the future.”

Michelle Ma, Sensing Singapore
At her first gallery opening, speaking to a collector.

Michelle is now planning her second exhibition, the journey to this we hope to follow on Ordinary People.

“I wish to introduce my collectors to more of China and Chinese history through my art. I would like to start with one painting, one story to explore this amazing ancient country! From this will come a series of stories and paintings in which I will use my contemporary “East-meets- West” style to connect people and myself.”

Ordinary People is so excited to be able to share Michelle’s story and her art. At the moment, she is looking for appropriate venues and collaborators for her next exhibition. We can’t wait to see the second series of East-meets-West from Michelle Ma.

Michelle Ma Art
A commissioned work presented with a note to the lucky collector. Image by Michelle Ma.

For more information on Michelle Ma:


Facebook: Artistmichellema
Instagram: michellemaart

Feature image by Ken Tan, Within Images Studio.

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