Because of Autumn Lanterns (Why Do I Make Art?)
by Peng-Ean Khoo
October 17, 2009
I went back and forth about posting this piece. It is less about my journeying with Down Syndrome but more about my journeying as an artist and why (I think) I was so compelled to enable the production of ONE FRIDAY. I say I think because I haven’t really had time to process it all yet. At this juncture, what I do realise is that ONE FRIDAY, although I had started out as being the person gifiting, I feel I am the primary beneficiary instead – I’ve been gifted back my gifts. I have been gifted back the gift of art.
This piece was written for Adelina Ong, Centre Director of the Little Arts Academy http://baf.sg/aboutthelittleartsacademy.htm
who do great work in service of children. She had asked three questions:
i) what the purpose of art is – to you personally as an artist
ii) why you have chosen to share your knowledge with children who cannot afford arts training
iii) what your dream/hope/aspiration is for the children you are teaching in LAA
My First Oil Painting
My first oil painting was entitled “Autumn Lanterns”. It was autumn, I was 15,000km from my birth place, and still I managed to link some New England foliage to my childhood mid-autumn festival lanterns. That was in 2000. I was 30. I was homesick and art had brought me home.
Why I now make art so furiously and so hungrily is because I never got to make art when I was a child. I never got to make art when I was a child not because there was a shortage of parental care or art materials or money but because NO ONE around me made art. And because of that, the artist in me had stayed buried for 30 years and all that time, a part of me was dead. And when a part of you is dead, you cannot truly live. You cannot truly live because you are mute and when you cannot truly speak, you cannot truly dialogue – with the world or with yourself. And when you cannot dialogue, you cannot reconcile. And when you cannot reconcile, you cannot find peace.
The Day of Autumn Lanterns
In 2000, the day of “Autumn Lanterns”, I had gotten to the point in my life where I had nothing to lose. It was a moment where I had stopped “judging” myself, where I had stopped “second-guessing” whether I could make art, and didn’t even bother to ask how one makes art. I just put paint on brush and drew what I saw. And that’s when I started to learn to live again – I had learnt to engage with the world with my eyes and my hands. I had found my OWN WAY of communing with the universe, especially of the abstract, of the things that no words could describe. I had also found a new SPACE – where we could leave behind all we knew yet we wouldn’t ever be lost – because it was my own space and one that I could come in and out of anytime, anywhere. And it was my space, and my space only and there was NO ROOM FOR JUDGEMENT because no one else could enter that space. It was a safe, free space – to tinker away at anything that I couldn’t otherwise work out in the conventional existence that we still need to inhabit (in order to fulfil our various responsibilities as a functional human being). I had felt that ANYTHING was possible. It’s that feeling of UNLIMITED POSSIBILITIES coupled with the feeling of being ABLE. To resolve, the unresolved work of humanity during my historical period, in my one precious lifetime that was bestowed upon me by the universe. In that one moment of stumbling, I had found art.
With that I started to find my own “voice”, to learn how to hone it somewhat and then when I got more crisp and started to learn more about art history and art theory, I went and lost that precious moment, and all the self-doubt crept back in and again, I started to feel so small, so insignificant, so hopeless, about what art can do; about what I can do, as an artist.
It was only this year that I truly dared to own my gift. And I found it while working on a project where I was making a gift as a mom. I was a mom trying to do her best to make things better for her children, especially her son with an extra chromosome 21. And for his band of brothers and sisters who have yet to be given a REAL CHANCE by the world that has been so WRONG about what individuals with Down Syndrome ARE and CAN BE. The need (to speak out, to cry out) was so compelling that I acted out of a mother’s pure primal instinct and went and gathered nearly 100 voices and energies to tell this story. But after the gathering process, I couldn’t start. I didn’t know where to begin the weaving. I knew I had to work in the film language, a totally new medium for me, in order to speak to the audience of the Internet Age. Everyone had given me their hearts and their most, most vulnerable, innermost hopes and dreams and had fully entrusted me to speak for them. It was so, so precious, and so, so terribly beyond me, that for the second time in my life, I was forced to stop trying to locate myself – in art historical context, labour market context, societal relationships context. Suddenly, from the same reserve that woke me up one day and told me I could be a great mother to a special child, I found this: that even with the little that I do, as long as it is the best I can do, IT IS GOOD ENOUGH. And I just stopped thinking and just started; the same way as Autumn Lanterns. Put paint on brush and slap it on canvas.
And I Began to Make Art Again
And I began to make art again. And I feel so alive again. And I feel so big. And I feel EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE. And I feel EVERYTHING GOOD IS POSSIBLE. AND I began to BELIEVE again that EVERYTHING’S GONNA BE ALRIGHT. Because with love, we can overcome ANYTHING – ANYTHING.
Suddenly all the noise disappeared and I learnt to just make what was NEEDED to be made, what was NEEDED to be said, without interference and I learnt to simply enjoy gift-wrapping my love in poetry. And it was even more liberating than finding a voice or a space, because now, I have learnt to gift love for others.
Working with Children
When I work with very young children, I am learning from them. I am observing them. I am learning how to engage with the world afresh. Children are the true artists. So free, so uninhibited. With older children who have forgotten this initial instinct, I help remind them about their natural gifts and helping them work at finding and entrenching their own doorways back to their magical selves. I also help show them what adults and children before them have discovered and we talk about respectful and meaningful engagement. And I help provide platforms for children to be heard. By simply sitting adults down and making them watch and stop twitching – and learn to truly listen – to our future.
For children of Little Arts Academy, there is no difference with other children. I used to feel tremendous sadness for children who are materially- challenged or physically-challenged or cognitively-challenged. The other day, some of Mother Theresa’s sayings ended up in my mailbox. She speaks about how it is actually the poverty of love being one of the greatest disruptions to peaceful and meaningful co-existence of humankind amongst ourselves and other species. So, with children of Little Arts Academy, who are dislocated from their physical homes/cores, if we gift them the gift of art, they’ll be able to find their way home – to themselves. With art, one can be in any state of physical impoverishment, no matter how adverse, and still be able to experience joy and hope. And with the power of BELIEF (in their own abilities to alter an adverse state), these children can overcome ANYTHING and BECOME all that they’re meant to be.
So making art for me is about gifting myself.
It’s about finding my voice.
It’s about saying something meaningful.
It’s about helping others find their voices.
It’s about crying out for others who have no voices.
It’s about finding a safe space.
It’s about experiencing that one moment of peace and hope.
It’s about love.
It’s about being home.