Learning through art
Learning is a two-way process for art teachers who nurture creativity in the learning disabled.
ARTIST Tan See Ling loves multi-tasking for a cause. She welcomes students with learning disabilities to her cosy Thumb Art Studio in Taman Segar Perdana, Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, and seeks to change public mindset about people with learning difficulties.
Inspired by the movie, Eat, Love, Pray, in which the main character, Elizabeth Gilbert, gets her friends to chip in to help a single mother to build a home, Tan created Tutti Art Club recently. Tutti, she explains, is an Italian word which means “all together”.
Like Gilbert, she wants to create a “home” to promote the artwork of the learning disabled and is inviting fellow art teachers, artists and parents with special needs children to come on board.
“The club welcomes all special artists. If artists and parents join forces, together we can provide a great avenue to nurture creativity by giving support and teaching aid to the learning disabled,” says Tan.
A graduate of fine arts from Universiti Sains Malaysia and formerly an industrial designer for the Royal Selangor Pewter and Gudang Damansara, Tan, 39, is driven by a passion to advance the artistic expression of the learning disabled.
“Art is a gift to humanity that shows love and truth in a beautiful way,” says Tan.
The first thing Tan did after setting up the club is to hold an exhibition to showcase the artworks of the learning disabled. Themed “Emerging The Unknown,” the exhibition is currently on at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur until December.
Tan hopes that by holding the exhibition at an established venue, more members of the public will come to know of the artwork of the learning disabled.
“Ultimately, it is about bringing people together as a community and bridging the divide between the abled and disabled,” says Tan.
Tan started teaching students with special needs nine years ago. “I have so much to learn from them,” she says.
Although communication is a major impediment for many learning disabled people, Tan reckons she has a special connection with them. She cites as an example, her student Nani Zahirra Mohd Taufik,13, who spontaneously wrote “rain” in Chinese even though she is not Chinese-educated.
Tan who can’t read Chinese, was impressed by what Nani, who has mild autism, wrote although at that point, she could not make head or tail of it. Soon after Nani wrote the word, it rained cats and dogs. When Tan found out the meaning of the word, she marvelled at her student’s acute ability to sense impending rain. “That was surreal,” she admits.
Tan figures her own mood can affect her student’s paintings. “Although I keep my feelings inside, somehow my students can sense when I am happy or stressed, and it shows in their paintings and in their behaviour,” she says.
“This goes to show that people with learn-learninging disabilities are well aware of their surroundings and they can feel the vibes of the people around them,” she observes.
Tan highlighted another case in which her student, Nadiah Suraya Mohammad Zackir Rakesh, 11, told her that she wanted to paint a “flying bird” and a hospital.
Although Tan was puzzled by her student’s choice, she encouraged her to proceed. And as it turned out, Nadiah, who has autism, painted the Gleneagles Hospital in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.
Tan reckons the “flying bird” refers to Gleneagles. “You can’t help but marvel at the way some of the learning disabled perceive things,” says Tan.
Tan’s commitment has taken her a step further. She has enrolled for a diploma in learn-learn- ing disabled management. “I am learning to find ways to understand the learning disabled better,”better,” enthuses Tan.
Tan is not alone. Another artist who has a passion for teaching special needs students is Wong Pey Yu. When Wong first started her art class in 2006, she did not envisage that three years later, she would be devoting her time to teaching students with learning disabilities. “There are many art schools for normal students but there is hardly any for the learning disabled,” laments Wong.
A graduate from the Malaysian Institute of Art, Wong was approached by a parent with an autistic son when she started her class. She taught the student the fundamentals of etching. When other parents came to know of her work and saw how her autistic student had bloomed under her, they, too, wanted her to teach their children.
Today Wong has about 13 learning disabled students. Wong painstakingly videotapes each learning session to chart her student’s progress and to identify areas to work on.
She strongly believes that her students deserve the chance to build a strong foundation like any other student in art college.
“I find it very gratifying to teach students with learning difficulties, though some may take a longer time to learn. These students need our patience and understanding,” says Wong.
Looking at the works of her students, one can see the amazing transformation on canvas and the maturity they display as the lesson progresses. Wong says she, too, is learning from her students; each of them has his own interpretation of a subject, and expresses it in an individual way.
“My work with the learning disabled is to unearth their talent and help them communicate through art. The journey has been very fascinating so far,” Wong adds. n One Voice is a monthly column which serves as a platform for professionals, parents and careproviders of children with learning difficulties. Feedback on the column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. For enquiries of services and support groups, please call Malaysian Care (03-9058 2102) or Dignity & Services (03-7725 5569). E-mail: onevoice email@example.com. that evening.
A colleague has a theory that technology is to blame for this lapse in manners.
The more plugged-in the young people are online, the less connected they are to real people.
“My nephews can be at a family gathering but have their faces buried in their iPads or laptops the whole evening,” he commented.
The worry that such children will grow up without values such as respect and appreciation for others is perhaps what prompted educators to implement the changes in schools. I hope the move works. If that fails, may I suggest a stay at my parents’ “hotel”.
I would like to think it worked for me. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network