JTMuses Mentors Special Needs Students In Arts

“Art is a journey where one can freely express his or her mind through different mediums – oil is a special beautiful medium where you can create depth and make happy mistakes!” Joyce Tan, founder of JTMUSES and The Muse Project, shares her journey as a self-taught artist and how she mentors other students with differently-abled needs and brings their wares to market.

1. I've read that you had prior work experience in the corporate sector, could you share more on why you left that sector to pursue and set up your current business? What was something that drove you to want to do what you are doing now?

I left the corporate world in 2015- I was Head of Branding and Communications for the Esplanade. As Head of Communications, you have to position key messages and communicate relevant information for marketing needs. As one of the busiest arts centres in the world with about 3,000 performances presented by Esplanade, It was indeed a tall order. I also had to manage a young Millennial team – that was even more challenging!. 

I wouldn’t exactly say that I left the corporate scene as I always kept busy between jobs working on consultancy jobs, like enabling the brand and web content of a resort in Yunnan, Shangri-la and helping start-ups position their strategic messages. As we speak, I am in the midst of talks with Rainbow to mentor a new student and helping a realtor tell his story on the website I am building for him.

I decided to leave a full-time job to manage my health and wellness, and while I was “shaking legs”, my friend recommended that I refresh my oil painting skills! Glacy, my college and NUS friend and a bonafide artist herself “pushed” me into this artistic journey. Together with another ACJC-ian, we held two different exhibitions, one at Chinatown Heritage Centre, and another at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. To come back to the question, I would say that I just decided to slow down in my 50s, to bring to fruition a skill and passion!

2. Before your friend introduced you to join her at classes, did you have any prior interest in oil painting or mixed media?

I did do a bit of painting in my 40s (to de-stress) after taking 8 lessons in oil painting (for fun), but because I was so busy I didn’t have time to pursue it.  I really enjoyed the use of oil paints because oil paints are beautiful mediums to work with; they have a lot of depth and vibrancy in terms of their colors.  Oils allow happy mistakes; you can actually evolve a “mistake” and create interesting iterations, Oil painting takes about a week to dry so you can continuously apply layer over layer. My art always evolves and I call it Glimpses of Eden, the good Word inspires me to story tell and imprint my musings!  I entered the Angelico Art exhibition with my first few oil paintings and 2 were selected –

I was also one of the 60 selected finalists at the Angelico Art Exhibition in 2016. A testament of my spiritual journey, I feel art should uncover and emote – it should make you feel when you look at it, and oil is a very good medium for that.  

The only thing about oil as a medium is that I cannot do super-fine details – a predicament that led me into mixed media, namely, watercolour and ink.  Again, as a group of 3 artists, we produced some drawings for a coffee table book for a University. I honed these new found skills and used this medium with differently-abled artists, mentoring one to bring his wares to market with the “I’m able collective” initiated by SG Enable.

3. Besides your own creative ventures, you also mentor other students to start off their creative journey - could you tell me more about your students and their achievements?

I started with Douglas, who is an autistic youth in his early twenties. I conceptualized the subject matter and collage a print for him, after which he was trained to draw it. Once inked, I guide him to apply the colours.  His quintessential shophouses along Koon Seng Road and Playgrounds of Singapore (Past and Present) have been hot favourites. Autistic persons who learn process information in bite sizes – though intelligent, they are inept socially and are more comfortable with repetitive tasks or doing things they feel most comfortable with.  It is quite challenging to work with them as they do make mistakes often (in translating ideas or form onto canvas), thus I have to really guide my mentees very closely on transforming subjects into drawings.

Biennial SIF Shiok Nite – Among the evening’s highlights were the recognition of 28 individuals — each received a framed limited print of mixed media art pieces by my mentee : Douglas T. S. Leong.

4. Could you tell me more about the process of working with Douglas or other differently-abled people? Are there any weekly plans that you have for them doing your lessons?

It is structured. I usually spearhead what we want to draw, I try to interest him on the back story and get him to do some reading on the matter.  Thus, the first lesson would be edu-taining – he reads up  with me and learns knowledge on what he will draw. We start with line drawings from a conceptual piece for reference (collaged by me); he would show me his progress via WhatsApp (after work hours) on weekdays. On weekends we would have a formal 1.5 hour class – to work on the art piece. You can watch the video on YouTube and his final art pieces here .

5. What do you think is the most rewarding part about teaching Douglas and other differently-abled people? How do you think they express themselves differently compared to other normal people?

When I embarked on this project, there were three kids that were on the autism spectrum. Douglas was the most highly functional, so I didn’t have as many problems as my other friends who mentored two on the lower end of the spectrum – there were more behavioral and coordination issues.  Douglas is a very good boy, but he processes instructions poorly.  We grasp what people say and understand quickly  but for Douglas,  he would nod his agreement and say he understands,…but you realise this was not so when he acts on it.  So, close observation and supervision is required. They also lack social skills and may say something inept -they don’t actually mean to be rude, it is just how they express themselves.  The most rewarding part…well, when you see their works being imprinted on merchandise and appreciated as unique gifts! His lacquer trays sold out at the launch of the I’m able collective bazaar in 2019 and have been a hot favourite on travel mugs and drawstring backpacks!

Many corporates and agencies appreciate his work and support him, he was especially excited when President Halimah Yacob was presented with his works and when he was invited to attend corporate events. Twenty seven framed prints of the artworks of shophouses and playgrounds were given away by Ms Sim Ann, Snr Minister of State, MICA at an international corporate event. He got to interact and take photos with like-minded alumni recognised for their contribution in bringing Singaporeans and world communities together to strengthen ties and to effect positive change and had his works distributed worldwide. It was an exciting time for him. Was very happy for him.

Archival museum quality canvas – Shophouse (A3) Quintessential SG shophouses along Koon Seng Road – from $100.

6. Being an artist is sometimes quite competitive - do you think that your students might face some challenges when it comes to this area?

It is competitive, there is no doubt about it – my work experience in marketing helps in creating and bringing his art-wares to market. In addition, Douglas’s art focuses on scenes and heritage of SG, and we are able to interest corporates, and visitors looking for gifts to remind them of their visit.  My challenge lies in encouraging him to paint what is more sellable versus what he likes to draw or feels like doing.

7. Do you have anything to say to all readers who might want to try their hand at the arts?

The visual arts are very personable, one either likes it or hates it! If you’re interested in being an artist and making some income out of it – go for it – paint yourself happy – if it’s something that you enjoy doing and are passionate about, join collectives and networks which enable people to come together to work together for a cause. You also need lots of tenacity and help from friends to bring things to fruition.

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” – Edgar Degas.
Art is something that everyone can definitely try. With an empty canvas in our hand, we too, can create beautiful stories and pieces such as how Joyce and Douglas did. To find out more about Joyce’s ventures and works under The Muse Project, check out her store here.

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