Paintings from the Heart
BY LOW SUE SAN
When my friend, Tan Ean Nee, invited me to join a painting session at the Valley of Hope with a group of former leprosy patients, I hesitated.
“Come, we need 20 volunteers to accompany them whilst they create paintings for the soon-to-be-opened Story Gallery. The whole idea is to make them feel more at ease during the session, since they may not feel too confident about it. You just have to assist them every now and then, like getting the water changed and what not, you know, simple things like that,” she said.
Despite her reassurance, I was afraid of not knowing what to say, or what to do, around the ex-patients. Being an extremely introverted person by nature, I often find myself feeling awkward at social gatherings such as these.
“What if I can’t find anything to talk about with them, and we end up staring at each other in silence, with me feeling like a fool?” I thought to myself, and politely told Ean Nee that I’ll think about it. To my relief, she graciously agreed.
Over the next couple of days, I kept thinking about whether I should participate or not, alternating between yes and no.
“Well, I am free on that day, so I should definitely go and help them out. Besides, what have I got to lose? It’s not like my painting would be displayed,” I told myself.
“But you’ll make a fool of yourself. Plus, there’s so many other things you had wanted to do,” somewhere, another voice chimed in.
It was a real tug of war. In the end, I decided against going. She would be able to find other volunteers, I convinced myself.
And so, I made up my mind to decline her invitation. Before I could relay her the message however, I decided to ask my mother if she was interested in going. To my surprise, she said yes, despite some apprehension about coming in contact with the former patients, fearing she would somehow be infected with the disease, even though these are fully recovered patients.
It turns out that like me, she was intrigued by the premise of the event – a teacher would be present on that day to guide everyone and volunteers would also get to create their very own artwork, which they can then bring home with them. I have not done any kind of painting since art classes in secondary school and generally think that I suck at it, but I was curious to find out if I would somehow end up enjoying painting again, and this is a good chance to explore that notion.
After talking it over with my mother, we managed to put aside our own fears and volunteer ourselves for the event.
As it turned out, we had nothing to fear about – The venue for the painting session was lovely (set in the bright and airy Communal Ward, with lovely, floor length windows), the other volunteers were friendly and the teacher was great. More importantly though, the former patients enjoyed the session, no matter how much resistance they may have put up initially.
I was fortunate enough to be “assigned” to paint with Heng Pak Nang, a feisty lady with an easy going demeanour. She said she has not painted before, but was one of the first ones to pick up the drawing stick* and start drawing, well before the start of the session.
Deftly, she made big, broad strokes across the canvas and soon enough, a landscape of mountains and the sea formed. She looked like she was really enjoying the process and simply drew whatever came to her – clouds, birds, trees, flowers.
I was amazed, had it been me I would have second guessed myself to death before nary a stroke has reached the paper, worrying I would make a mistake. Even when another inmate teased her about her drawing (who at one point said, “That does not look like a bird!”), she kept at it. Her confidence is inspirational.
Undaunted by the negative comments, she continued to draw and paint, eventually producing a total of three artworks at the end of the session. One painting in particular created a lasting impression on me, simply because of her decision to paint something so random and abstract when everyone else was painting sceneries. It’s a painting of a flame entitled, A Single Flame (loosely translated from “一把火” in Mandarin), if you should ever decide to visit the Story Gallery to see it for yourself.
A few other volunteers however were not as fortunate as I was, having to deal with inmates who found it extremely difficult to paint, both physically and mentally. These were the ones who stubbornly insisted they cannot paint well, and so needed lots of coaxing and encouraging words from us volunteers. There were also those who had some kind of physical deformities (for example, bent and crooked fingers), which made even the simple act of holding a brush a challenge.
At the end of the session, I realised that although I was there as a volunteer, expending time and effort, I gained more than I gave out – courage to listen to my heart and better confidence in my own ability, something invaluable in my quest to explore the creative side of me.
It has also helped me realise that after all is said and done, we are all the same underneath the skin, sharing the same fears and dreams, regardless of how perfect or imperfect our bodies are. And that all there is to fear, is fear itself.
Carpe diem, my friends.
*A wooden stick sharpened at one end, designed to be dipped into ink before use. Made specially for the event, it is crafted out of the Hydnocarpus tree, a tree of significant importance to the former patients as its oil was used in the treatment of leprosy in the early days of the settlement.
Other photos of the event: