Intellectually-challenged Malaysian artist Janet Lee's indomitable spirit

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  • Saturday, 03 Apr 2021

Janet Lee, deep in concentration, as she paints. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

Janet Lee, was born epileptic. She had her first epileptic episode at eight months old and was subsequently diagnosed as intellectually and developmentally delayed.

She faces communication difficulties and experiences unpredictable seizures. What is worse is that her epilepsy is intractable, meaning it can’t be controlled by medication and the seizures occur suddenly without any pre-warning.

But that doesn’t deter Lee’s indomitable spirit.

Despite being intellectually-challenged, Lee, now 32, has found an opportunity to express herself through her paintings because of her mother, Joyce Moi’s support and encouragement.

“Differently-abled people are still human and have the ability to serve in the community. We just need to give them the opportunity and perhaps a system or environment where they can work and be understood, ” says Moi, 65.

It is with this in mind that Moi started Janet Lee Gallery in Kuala Lumpur last year to exhibit her daughter’s paintings. Lee’s art is also featured beyond the canvas on merchandise such as shoes, bags, postcards and others, through collaborations with manufacturers that do retail. These are also displayed at the gallery.

Janet Lee’s art is also featured beyond the canvas on merchandise such as shoes, bags, postcards and others. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngJanet Lee’s art is also featured beyond the canvas on merchandise such as shoes, bags, postcards and others. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

Unconventional style

Lee has a vivid sense of colour and patterns, which is evident in her art. But her talent as an artist wasn’t discovered until she was in her 20s because she had previously been dismissed as “untalented” when she wouldn’t draw or follow the conventional colour perspectives.

Then in 2017, through the tutelage of an artist called Philip Wong, she was encouraged to express her unconventional style.

“He identified her as a colourist. While most artists have objects to paint, her object is colour itself, ” explains Moi.

Lee’s exploration in the world of abstract art enables her to make a living despite her difficulties in normal social interactions.

While most artists have an object in mind when painting, Janet Lee's object is colour. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngWhile most artists have an object in mind when painting, Janet Lee's object is colour. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

“I started the private gallery (which is by appointment only) in the midst of the pandemic, because I also wanted to help families with special needs children understand that not all children’s gifts are obvious and you need time to understand your child, ” says Moi, who offers help to families with children having learning difficulties.

According to Moi, the gallery is built on the foundation stones of positivity, empowerment and gratitude.

“Firstly, always stay positive because in most instances, you can always make something out of whatever the child is capable of. Secondly, sometimes, we can’t do everything ourselves so we need people to support and empower us. Thirdly, gratitude because everything that the gallery sells – whether paintings or products – we donate 10% to children’s homes. It’s our way of giving back to others in need because we’re grateful, ” says Moi. She adds that they’ve previously given to Rumah Sayangan in Kuala Lumpur and are currently supporting Rumah Kasih Ibu in Selangor, which houses 60 underprivileged children and orphans.

Janet Lee (centre) with her parents. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngJanet Lee (centre) with her parents. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngGiving back to society

“If we help them, and they can be somebody someday, they can then pay it forward and in turn, help others, ” she says.

Moi also hopes that the gallery will inspire people who have been going through difficulties during the pandemic, that they’ll be encouraged by her daughter’s art and the positive message behind it. 

“When they visit the gallery, and think: ‘If she can do it, why not I, who is able bodied and able minded’, and they won’t give up on themselves or on life, ” she says.

Lee’s art has been featured in many exhibitions in Malaysia and overseas in Singapore, Philippines, South Korea, and the United States.

Moi also features her daughter’s art through an American subscription channel called Patreon.

For the last 13 years, Moi has been a “parent coach” for families who have a special needs child but she emphasises that her priority is on developing her daughter.

“Parent coaching is my way of giving back to society, that’s why I’m not actively publicising it, and my main purpose is to develop my daughter to her fullest potential, ” she says.

“If I can make her a better individual through all that I’m doing, that I would have achieved my goal, ” she says. “I hope that she will be known as a brand some day, and not be labelled as ‘special needs’ or be dependent on charity, ” she adds.

“If those who are differently-abled can be included into society and given the opportunity to earn an income, they won’t have to depend on support from the Social Welfare Department nor be a financial burden to their family members, ” she expresses.

The parents Moi works with are mainly those who have children with learning difficulties. While some are children with a high IQ but struggle to learn in school, others are those identified as autistic, dyslexic or slow learners, she says.

Janet Lee (right), pictured with her parents at the gallery. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngJanet Lee (right), pictured with her parents at the gallery. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngAccording to Moi, planning for a differently-abled child is more than just ensuring that there is financial support.

“As parents, we must try our best to make them as independent as they are able to be so that their future caregiver has an easier time managing them, be it their siblings, relatives or even a domestic helper, ” she says.

A vision problem

“When my daughter had difficulties learning, people said that it was because of her medical condition. But her eagerness to learn made me to think that something else was preventing her from learning, ” says Moi.

After many years of searching, she found her answer in Australia.

“The learning specialist whom I met in Melbourne felt that her challenges could be due to vision processing issues. While she could see the words and her brain was ok, her eyes couldn’t connect to her brain, which is why she wasn’t able to read until she was 16 years old, ” she adds.

“It was only after we started working on her vision in 2005 that she began reading and writing, ” she explains.

Moi says that it was this transformation in her daughter that led her to believe that there could be others around who have been wrongly labelled due to issues that are not obvious to the human eye.

This was how Moi ventured into the field. She went for training and got herself certified so that she could help and support others who are going through the same problems.

“I believe that we can all help those who are differently-abled by seeing them as a person who just does things differently. Some of them might even be geniuses because they think out of the box. For all we know, they might be thinking the same thing about us, that they’re normal and we’re all the weird ones, ” she says with a laugh.

“They are also living human beings with thoughts and feelings, and have a purpose in life too, ” she says.

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