No borders: online classes are giving Malaysian art teachers a global audience


‘We are still figuring out ways to grab the students’ attention, how to improve their skills, and check their work, ’ says Dickson, who often dresses up in costume to teach art online. Photos: Handout

From watercolour paints to coloured pencils and oil pastels to origami, art studios in Penang are extending their reach around the globe through the new frontier of online art.

Quickly adapting to stay-at-home conditions, young art practitioners are evolving and embracing the opportunities that restricted conditions are opening up. And many are doing it first for free.

With regular free classes and previews, art teachers are attracting a whole new audience from both near and far while changing the mindset of how art can be learnt, enjoyed and shared. Jelutong-based art school Colour Me Art Atelier was one of the first on the online art class bandwagon, starting distanced sessions even before the movement control order (MCO) was announced.

Suspending its physical classes when word of the spreading Covid-19 virus hit, academy founder and managing director Bryan Hwong Dickson halted classes early and went online in March.

“We shutdown the school even before the lockdown came as we noticed how severe the Covid-19 situation was in China months before. We started preparing to move all our programmes online to continue our lessons, ” says Dickson.

Initially focused on existing students, Zoom classes were arranged and some 50 people joined Dickson’s first class entitled “A Boy Who Lost His Meal”.

“It was a simple drawing class; a reflection of how families are finding it difficult to make ends meet in the current situation. My intention was to make a difference to people out there to get them to do some creative activities through art, rather than watching television and sleeping.”

Dickson was worried how his students were coping at home.

“Although we did see it coming, the lockdown kind of took us all by surprise because of its duration and we weren’t prepared for the extended MCO because it has dragged on for a long period of time, ” he says.Looking beyond his existing students, Dickson decided to open classes to the public for free.

A sketching class handled by Dickson, who says some of his art classes have attracted more than 450 participants.A sketching class handled by Dickson, who says some of his art classes have attracted more than 450 participants.

He posted a notice on Facebook and was happily surprised by the response.

“I ran free classes for a week and the results were very encouraging. I started to motivate my team of dedicated teachers to do free trials for the public and we got all our existing students to join, too, ” he says.

From 50-odd participants, the numbers grew to over 100, then

to 200 and by the end of last month, some of Dickson’s classes were hitting 450 students from all over the globe.

“The participants are both local and from other places like Thailand, Taiwan, Macau, Australia, Singapore and India. They range from children and teens to working adults and retirees. We wanted to show that post Covid-19, online education will be the new normal for the public and will continue even after Covid-19 blows over, ” he adds.

As most educational instructors have recently discovered, patient parents are a big help to successful distance learning.

“We are still figuring out ways to grab the students’ attention, how to improve their skills, and check their work. Parents want the best education for their children during this Covid-19 pandemic and most parents are extremely cooperative.

“We have finally been able to launch different subjects that we did not previously offer in our physical academy, ” says Dickson, naming action and story-based programmes as examples.

Colour Me Art Atelier’s free online art classes have been an accidental marketing tool.

From cartoon drawing and pencil sketching to colour pencil tutorials and crayon colouring sessions, hardly a week goes by without a number of free classes available.

The classes have lifted not only the spirits of students, but of Dickson and his teachers as well, who have been known to go the extra mile donning makeup and funny outfits to spice up the classes.

Additionally, in-depth paid classes are offered for those who intend to sharpen their skills. That has helped to generate income for the art school.

Mind, body and soul

For ZenVee Art Of Therapy Academy, going online is just the next new challenge in the art world.

Founder Ooi Viv and academy partner Hazel Lye are tackling online art lessons like any new change – with patience, try-outs and the quiet confidence that things get better as long as you keep trying.

“Indeed, the MCO took us by surprise but as teachers and artists, we are flexible and tried quickly to adapt to the change in the environment.“When MCO hit us on March 18, we decided that art must go on, even though many programmes have been postponed or cancelled, ” says Ooi.

Noted for her skills in nagomi art – a form of Japanese pastel painting using fingers – Ooi ran her first online course on the subject on March 21 with 10 participants.

More art courses followed and Zenvee Art began branching out into other subjects in line with the school’s philosophy of achieving peace and harmony through art.

Free classes on recorder and ukulele playing (with even a guide on how to create a makeshift ukulele with rubber bands), creative journal writing, cookie baking and yoga were put online.

Alongside art instruction on mandala drawing, watercolour, paper quilling, origami, portrait illustration and easel card making, the art studio experimented with different online meeting platforms and finally settled on Voov.

‘Like all new things, we had initial problems with online learning  platforms but with each class, we learned so much and gained the confidence to proceed with our work, ’ says Ooi, who sees ZenVee Art adding more variety to its online classes.‘Like all new things, we had initial problems with online learning platforms but with each class, we learned so much and gained the confidence to proceed with our work, ’ says Ooi, who sees ZenVee Art adding more variety to its online classes.

From a modest start, their free classes (numbering over 20) now often draw more than 300 students.

“The classes are in line with our concept of healing therapies which cover all five human senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing.

“Since our free classes are basic experience classes, we have participants ranging from (age) five to 60! We do encourage all ages to join us, there are no barriers or limits in art, ” says Ooi. Online participants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, Singapore and Brunei have joined the art classes.

ZenVee Art is prepared for the post-pandemic challenges ahead.

“Like all new things, we had initial problems with online learning platforms but with each class, we learned so much and gained the confidence to proceed with our work, ” says Ooi.

Bright side of life

Aside from art studios, the MCO has opened up doors for independent artists as well.

Esther Geh, a botanic artist in Penang, has hosted six free art tutorials since early April sharing her unique style in watercolour and acrylic.

Leaving behind a career as an anaesthetist more than a decade ago after having her third child, Geh has expanded her talents and life-long passion for art.

“I’ve enjoyed drawing and painting my whole life but I grew up in a generation where that was not an approved career path, ” says Geh, who spent her childhood schooling days in Penang and Singapore and later moved to England for university and work.She and her husband made the decision to relocate to Penang over two decades ago and by chance, Geh met another mother who was like-minded in her love for art.Coffee mornings transformed into art sessions which bloomed into an art club of a closely knit group of over a dozen members.

Taking commissioned work and painting for collectors, Geh has linked up with art circles in Penang through exhibitions and projects like the George Town Festival and Open Studios Penang (OSP).

‘I think for a lot of artists, we just want to give people a bit of light relief in this time and have art as a brighter side of life, ’ says Geh, who has been busy with free online art classes during the MCO. .‘I think for a lot of artists, we just want to give people a bit of light relief in this time and have art as a brighter side of life, ’ says Geh, who has been busy with free online art classes during the MCO. .

OSP was scheduled for its second instalment in late March and early April this year but was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“A group of us involved were meeting frequently at the time and we decided to not stop that. Instead of meeting over lunch, we ate lunch in our homes ‘together’ online.

“OSP, which is the brainchild of Louise Goss-Custard, already had events lined up and we thought, why stop?” she says.

With help from the Penang Art District, events went digital and Geh hosted her first session on April 5 featuring a watercolour painting of a heliconia, or lobster claw plant.“My focus wasn’t the subject itself, really, but more on how to build up form, creating a three-dimensional realistic painting and some colour theory.

“It was a workshop I had originally intended to conduct for OSP anyway, so we invited the people who had already signed up for it, and a few others who had expressed interest in the subject. I think we had 18 people attend in the end, ” says Geh.

Since then, Geh has also joined platforms like Unrestricted Stage to hold online events.All her sessions have been free and for the time being, Geh prefers it that way.

“Personally, I’ve never taught formal classes and I didn’t have students before the MCO. This is a difficult time for everyone and it just doesn’t seem like the right time for me to start charging.“I think for a lot of artists, we just want to give people a bit of light relief in this time and have art as a brighter side of life, ” concludes Geh.

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