Brushing Aside Differences
Brigitte Rozario 
With this exhibition, Tan hopes to show that in art, there is no disability

Some children cannot fit into regular school. Their parents are at their wit’s end, trying one therapy after another. By the time they arrive at Tan See Ling’s door, they are resigned to the fact that they may never find a way to reach their children and help them develop.

Artist and teacher Tan doesn’t just take in special needs children. She also accepts typically-developing kids. In her art class, everyone learns to paint. They start with simple lines, moving on to circles and dots. Some are happy to be able to paint every week. Even though some of her students can’t speak, they express their joy with gleeful sounds instead of words. Her exceptional students move on to become artists in their own right, gaining fans around the world and exhibiting abroad.

This month, Tan and four of her students will be displaying their art at the Beyond Differences exhibition. It is the seventh annual show organised by Tutti Art Club, the branding chosen by Tan for her students.

There will be 36 pieces of art on display – six from her and the rest from Fitri Raslan, Nasreen Lyana Nasim, and siblings Goik Zerlynde and Zuwern. All the works are acrylic on canvas and prices start from RM500.

Goik Zuwern and his favourite muse, the Paddington Bear

“We want to look beyond our differences, to stand together and show that in art there is no disability. Everyone is free to express their own work,” says Tan, whose paintings are on the horse theme.

One of her top students, Fitri, 22, will showcase his paintings, featuring the interiors of homes. Fitri, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, has been attending Tan’s art class since 2008. He regularly takes part in exhibitions by special needs artists and his paintings have been bought by collectors in the UK and the US. Some of his works have also been adapted for batik products.

“In his paintings, things are all floating and they are not in proportion. In fact, there are multiple perspectives in one painting,” says Tan. She normally finds a theme to match her student’s interests and style. In Fitri’s case, he likes colours, so Tan chooses themes like Gaudi, Barcelona, and Morrocan and Turkish interiors for him to paint.

“When I coach these kids, I’ll analyse their style and preferences. They don’t have the depth of knowledge that I have, so they are not able to search for what they want to paint. I will find a new theme for them every term and I show them pictures of the theme to inspire them. They usually copy elements from different pictures. When their proportion is out, I’ll suggest they add things like pots and plants,” she adds.

Sisterly Love by Nasreen Lyana Nasim

Fitri is now working on a Peranakan series of lamps, tiffin carriers and teapots. It is a great opportunity for him to use various colours, which is something he enjoys.

Also participating in the show is 10-year-old Nasreen, who was diagnosed with mild autism at age three. Her works feature figures, animals, fruits, flowers and still life. At this tender age, she has already produced up to 70 pieces and participated in prominent local shows as well as international art shows in Dubai and Seoul. She has also dipped her paintbrush in the world of children’s books, having done the graphics for her grandmother’s book, Anak Ayam.

According to Tan, Nasreen has shown tremendous progress in her work over the past four years, from raw figures to very fine work. Her work is very careful and neat and there are a lot of repetitions.

Tan points out that repetition is a strong feature of autistic artists.“That is their strength – repetitious work. As an illustrator for books, you need to repeat characters throughout the book and she’s good at that. She repeats colours and elements like windows, domes and figures, as well as the designs in the elements. As an art, it’s nice,” relates Tan.

The elder Goik sibling, Zerlynde, 13, joined the art class about 18 months ago. Prior to that, she had attended short holiday courses conducted by Tan. Her paintings are themed Studio Ghibli and her style is very free and non-repetitious.

Her brother Zuwern, 11, is very adventurous and likes to do everything. His mother started sending him for art to help him focus and to calm down. When he came for classes, Zuwern wanted to paint many different subjects, from dragons to lions. When he was not able to do it, he would be utterly disappointed.

“I told him, you have to have a series of works that you do repeatedly until you are familiar with the subject, then only can you move on to something new,” explains Tan.

This year, Zuwern has been focusing on Paddington Bear. His paintings in this exhibition show Paddington Bear involved in various activities all over London. “Even though he is not a special needs child, he requires help with his motor skills as he is not able to do fine work yet. He is now learning about size and proportion,” observes Tan.

The children who participate in the annual show take full responsibility for their own paintings. They have the works framed, packed and transported to the gallery. Even the cost of hosting the exhibition is shared with Tan. This teaches them to be more responsible and to help them understand the process involved when participating in an exhibition.

“They get a chance to socialise and stand up in front of visitors to talk about their work. This is very important. Through the years, they have learnt art, how to express themselves, and what theme to paint. In previous years, I was the one standing up and talking for them, but in the past two years, I have been asking them to take over.”

“While we want to sell their art, the show is not only about that. We want to show their progress each year and that this is something that mainstream education has not been able to provide for them. This kind of development is something they can do here and it is through art which they love. They can even excel at it,” adds Tan, who started teaching special needs children by accident.

Initially, she was teaching art to typically-developing children and among them were Fitri’s siblings. After he was bullied at school, he didn’t want to go back, so his mother brought him to Tan. After coaching him and a few other students who have special needs, Tan realised she was struggling because the method she used to teach them was not working for all.

“I didn’t really understand their individual difficulties and the background of their respective disorders. So, I attended a special education class and also studied child psychology. That helped me understand them better and after that, I started using various other methods to teach them. You can’t use one package for all. Each child needs to have a syllabus crafted for them based on their limitations and needs. The main idea is art and in between, I slot in some personal development and skills for them to pick up.”

“When parents meet me for the first time, I tell them that it’s a long learning journey with me. Don’t expect a miracle. The end game for (the children) is to continue to paint. The day when they tell me they don’t need me and they can independently paint by themselves, I’ll be happy,” says Tan. 

Beyond Differences ran from Oct 10 – 21 at The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre 

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 254.