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jtmuses Mentors Special Needs Students In Arts

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

by Shane Yap - Fairmarch - edited by JTMUSES

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. seen on Fairmarch social enterprise

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, I had to position key messages and communicate relevant information for marketing needs. It was a tall order as Esplanade presented about 3,000 performances as one of the busiest arts centres in the world. I also had to manage a young Millennial team – that was even more challenging!

I didn’t leave the corporate scene as I worked on consultancy jobs between jobs, like enabling the brand and web content of a resort in Yunnan, Shangri-la and helping start-ups position their strategic messages. 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 answer your 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?

II did a bit of painting in my 40s (to de-stress) after taking 8 lessons in oil painting (for fun), but I was too busy to pursue it. I enjoyed using oil paints because they have a lot of depth and vibrancy. Oils allow happy mistakes; you can evolve a “mistake” and create interesting iterations. 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 proof of my faith, I feel art should uncover and emote – it should make you feel when you look at it, and oil is a 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.

As a group of 3 artists, we produced some

drawings for a University coffee table book and celebrated “Living at 55” with a 2-week exhibition at the SUTD Library. I continued to honed my mix-media skills and taught this medium to differently-abled artists, mentoring one to bring his wares to market with the “I’m able collective” by SG Enable. I brought this to fruition with a mix-media exhibition at the Chinatown Heritage Centre in July 2017. Link

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?

II started with Douglas, an autistic youth in his early twenties. I conceptualized the subject matter and collaged a print for him, then trained him to draw and colour it. His shophouses along Koon Seng Road and Playgrounds of Singapore (Past and Present) have been hot favourites. Autistic persons process information in bite sizes – though intelligent, they are inept socially and prefer repetitive tasks or doing things they are comfortable with. It is challenging to work with them as they make mistakes often (in translating ideas or form onto canvas), so I guide my mentees closely on transforming subjects into drawings.

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, interest him on the back story and get him to read on the matter. The first lesson is edu-taining – he reads up with me and learns what he will draw. We start with line drawings from a reference piece (collaged by me); he shows me his progress via WhatsApp (after work hours) on weekdays. On weekends, we 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 started this project, there were three kids on the autism spectrum. Douglas was the most functional, so I had fewer problems than my friends who mentored two on the lower spectrum – there were more behavioural and coordination issues. Douglas is a good boy, but he processes instructions poorly. We understand what people say quickly but for Douglas, he nods and says he understands but this is 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 mean to be rude, it is just how they express themselves. The most rewarding part…well, when you see their works 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 popular on travel mugs and drawstring backpacks!

Many corporates and agencies appreciate his work and support him, he was excited when President Halimah Yacob presented his quintessential Koon Seng Shophouses as decorative awards at the prestigious Enabling Mark Awards launch in August 2021, honouring 16 exceptional individuals and organizations. He also attended the Biennial SIF ShiokNite in Singapore in 2022, where he interacted with, took photos of, and recognised like-minded alumni for their contributions. His mixed media art pieces on Playgrounds of Singapore: Past and Present were given as awards to 28 individuals who have long supported the SIF in its efforts to connect, collaborate and effect change in the world. The awards were presented by Ms Sim Ann, Snr Minister of State, MICA /MCCY and SIF Governor David Chong

SIF Biennial SIF ShiOk Nite (6 Dec 2019) – 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. The awards were presented by SIF Governor Mr David Chong and our Guest-of-Honour Ms Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth

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

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 but my marketing experience helps me create and sell our art-illustrated wares. The art we do captures the vibrant colours and textures of SG’s diverse culture and history. We weave a tapestry of tales that bridges the past and the present. This captivates corporates and visitors who are searching for unique and meaningful souvenirs. My challenge is to encourage my mentees to paint what sells more versus what they like or feel.

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

The visual arts are personal, you like it or hate it! I find it therapeutic and a blessing! If you want to be an artist and earn from it - go for it - paint yourself happy! if you enjoy and love it, join collectives and social enterprises that work together for a cause. You also need tenacity and the help of friends to succeed! “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.

The Muse Project, check out her store


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