Autistic artistspaint their minds

Wonderful Birds by Tan. Note the print and pen technique.

Wonderful Birds by Tan. Note the print and pen technique.

So your child may be lost in his own world. He won’t even look at you in the eye when you are talking to him. What is a parent to do?

Accept and adapt. This is the advice from three mothers whose sons are full-time artists.

The three artists are also autistic.

Their artworks are on exhibition at The Ledge Art Gallery in 1Utama Shopping Centre.

The show is called “10 Years, A Beautiful Journey”. It is a group exhibition organised by United Voice, a society for persons with learning disabilities.

“Individuals with autism don’t lie. So, if he says you are pretty, you know it’s genuine,” said Jenny Tan, 50, mother of Tan Seng Kit, 26.

Jackie Liew, 50, learned over time to clap when she wanted her 20-year-old son Andrew Lau to come to her.

Love for art: Oois work has travelled far and wide.
Ooi’s work has found collectors in Europe, the US, the UK, Australia and Japan.

“I used to shout but it didn’t work. When I found out he was sensitive to claps, it made life easier,” she said.

Annie Kam, mother of Clement Ooi, 26, braved a solo show for her son in 2010 — without mentioning he was autistic.

“I wanted people to look at his talent. Not buy his work out of sympathy,” said Kam.

The “stunt” left her obliged to explain why Ooi was still taking part in group shows for special artists.

“The lawyer who set up the solo show for us said since he had set a platform for us, we shouldn’t move backwards. But I don’t like to turn away invitations,” said Kam.

Birds, fruits, flowers and scenery make up the bulk of this exhibition. Most are in bright colours. Each artpiece carries the artist’s distinctive style.

Tan has always expressed himself through art. As a child if he wanted a fried egg, hed draw one so his mother could make it for him.
Tan has always expressed himself through art. As a child if he wanted a fried egg, he’d draw one so his mother could make it for him.

For Seng Kit, it’s birds. With Ooi, orchids. Lau, animals. It is frank and straightforward, even in the abstract form.

But because the artists are autistic, you can’t help but look deep into the pieces for little clues that may reveal what is going on in their minds. Autistic people are not usually vocal about their thoughts. So, it is not easy to know what they are thinking.

You wonder how Seng Kit, who has to be taught how to smile, can work out things like perspective and space. How much of his work is influenced by outside help? How much of the content in his paintings are actually from him?

Speaking for their sons, the mothers say the work on display is a reflection of what they see. From holidays abroad. Magazines. Daily life. Photographic memory helps in recording the little details.

Just like any teenager: Lau responds to his mothers claps as well as games on his hand phone.
Lau responds to his mother’s claps as well as games on his hand phone.

The journey for these mothers has been long and hard. But it had been a necessary one so that their sons will give full cooperation at photo shoots and mind their manners.

So now we must ask how far these artists can go?

Ooi has been in the art scene since 2004. Tan, since 2008. With Seng Kit, art has always been a means of expression. As a child, if he wanted an egg, he’d draw a picture of it and show it to his mother.

“It will all depend on marketing,” said Kam who pointed to Facebook as a way of promoting Ooi’s work.

So, this means the artists will have to churn out quality instead of relying on sympathy. Their mothers insist this point be stressed.

Detailed: Pink Symphony by Ooi.
Pink symphony by Ooi.

Away from the exhibition, Seng Kit’s work hangs in a government office in Putrajaya.

In jest, his mother revealed she had once considered a change of profession for him.

Inspired by the film Rain Man, she took Seng Kit to a casino in hope his photographic memory may work to their benefit. It did not. So, he stayed an artist.

Ooi, on the other hand has been going places — his work that is. They have found collectors in Europe, the US, the UK, Australia and Japan.

There is also growing interest in autistic art. In last year’s United Voice exhibition, Bank Negara bought RM50,000 worth of paintings.