See the colorful world of J.A. Tan
People express themselves in different ways—through gestures, facial expressions,
speech, and drawings. Artists, particularly, are more adept and skilled in expressing themselves through their respective fields: Ballerinas dance, authors pen novels, thespians display emotions on stage, musicians create melodies, and visual artists draw, paint, sculpt, mold clay, and sketch.
Jose Antonio Tan, better known as J. A. Tan, is a professional visual artist. But unlike his peers, what sets J. A. apart is his lifelong condition and battle with autism.
AN ARTIST WITH AUTISM…
…is how J. A. describes himself. “I have come to the realization that I have always used art as a way of helping myself express my thoughts, feelings, and ideas,” he says. “I consider it an integral part of my existence as each work is a personal
journey of myself with myself, and myself with the world, bringing a feeling of peace and happiness since things become clearer to me through the images and visual pictures before me.”
His mother, Marie Zelie Tan, says that J. A. has always been into art, even as a young child. “He liked doodling, paper and pencils, and encyclopedias,” she reminisces fondly. J. A., the youngest of three siblings, was a quiet child who preferred solitary activities and would have “drawings of everything he sees.”
When he was 2 years and 9 months old, J. A. was diagnosed with high-functioning autism—a form of autism where they feel they can live independently as adults. His mother, despite assurances from J. A.'s grandmother that boys take a longer time than girls to start talking, listened to her instinct and consulted a professional. “He only started talking when he was 5 years old,” she relates, “but when he started speaking, it was in complete, grammatically correct sentences.”
Upon his diagnosis, J. A.'s mother decided to seek professional help in the Philippines, only to be met by obstinate roadblocks. “I was told by a professional to consign myself to the fact that my son was ‘useless' because he was autistic,” she shares. But she was determined to raise her son properly, with all the right equipment and support, and was referred to Dr. Magda Campbell of Bellevue Hospital in New York.
She remembers walking in New York City, her eyes clouded with tears as she passed
by the United Nations headquarters to get to the hospital. To her relief, Dr. Campbell provided a positive opinion—a stark contrast to other doctors' unhelpful apologies that there was nothing else they could do for him. Instead, Dr. Campbell advised Zelie to bring him to a small school—“a regular one, a Montessori school”—and provide him with all the therapy they could give.
For Zelie, it is a special anecdote, because many years later, she would be walking down the same street again, tears and all, only to go inside the U. N. headquarters, where her son would be honored for his work, “Victory”—a special artwork that was issued as a U. N. stamp on April 2, 2012. Only eight artists from all over the world were chosen: five Americans, one Scot, and two Canadians.
A UNIQUE EXISTENCE
J. A. is now based in Vancouver, Canada, but he has never forgotten his Filipino roots and would always proudly say that he is FilpinoCanadian, as opposed to being merely a Canadian citizen. He still has ties to the Philippines and maintains strong friendships with his classmates from St. Scholastica's College in Manila, thanks to Skype and Facebook. He has also made it a point to return to Manila every two years and stage an exhibit of his works.
“These visits have helped me cope with the challenges I faced in a new country,” says J. A. of his family's move to Canada in 2006.
“I speak in colors— each color has a
specific meaning in my works,” he adds. He uses plenty of bright colors in his work— even his white is of the brighter shade, instead of a muted one. J. A.'s paintings, like his life, have a lot of layers, and he is partial to textured painting, because that is how he sees his life. Abstract expressionists Pablo Picasso and Joan Mitchell are some of J. A.'s idols and inspirations.
J. A., as with any other artist, uses his art to express his thoughts and emotions. It is also his way of calming himself—a sanity saver, if
you will. “Through the artworks that I was encouraged to create, the world around me made sense as I could break it down into images—something very useful for a visual person like me,” he explains.