Originally published at Integrator - Volume 8 - Issue 2

Art Of Life

When the Disabled People's Association disseminated the information that Mrs Ellie Koh, a budding calligrapher, was keen on conducting free calligraphy lessons for people with disabilities, Mr Wan Tack Wei was one of those who responded to the offer without a second thought.

Mr Wan, a 28-year-old tetraplegic, took to mouth-painting some years after an accident which transformed his life. Embarking on a new career in the Singapore Armed Forces as an Air Force Technician, Mr Wan had been undergoing a swimming training session on 12 May 1990. He plunged into the pool and hit his head on the bottom. This caused a dislocation of one of his vertebrae and crushed his spinal cord. It was then that Mr Wan's life took an unexpected turn. At the age of 19, the prime of his youth, he became wheelchair-bound, having completely lost the use of his legs and most use of his arms.

A 20-month hospitalisation followed. During this time, Mr Wan met Ms Koo May Yeok, a nurse at one of the hospitals which treated him. He married her on 12 November 1992.

Mr Wan started painting with his mouth, an activity which had previously caused him to shudder, in July 1997, after much convincing by one of his friends and his wife, who had been keen on painting during her school days. Although Mr Wan had initially not shared their enthusiasm, he decided to give it a try when his computer broke down one day, driving him to boredom. His first attempt at drawing their pet rabbit using a felt pen was a failure as it turned out like a mutant rat. He almost gave up the idea, but his friend and wife never stopped encouraging him, which led to the purchase of a beginner's book on Chinese painting and painting materials.

A few other attempts at painting failed too. Frustrated, he ended up patching the white spots on his pet rabbit with black paint, then discarded the palette once again.

However, on another occasion when his television set broke down, he was once again driven by boredom to attempt mouth-painting. He dug up his painting materials, which had been carefully stowed away, and started painting a piece, this time with the intention of completing it.

This drawing of a panda and bamboo became his first completed piece. Although it is not something that he could show others, it was the valuable first step.

Mr Wan received much support from his wife, May Yeok, and his friend, who loaned him more books on painting. Soon, he found that painting was a great way to pass his time while waiting for his wife to return from work. It proved to be quite therapeutic too, although long sessions of painting left him with headaches and nausea.

In the next few months, Mr Wan discovered in himself a new talent. Art shops became his favourite haunt, much to the delight of his wife, who previously had to drag him there, 'kicking and screaming'.

In March 1998, Mr Wan was accepted as a stipendiary member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (AMFPA). The Association accepts as members only those with high artistic standards. AMFPA is based in Europe and has 500 members from 60 countries around the world. Mr Wan is one of the five members from Singapore. As a stipendiary member, he receives a regular grant, or a stipend, from the Association.

The announcement of Mrs Koh's offer to conduct free calligraphy lessons for people with disabilities excited Mr Wan. As he felt that calligraphy could complement his Chinese paintings, he immediately got in touch with Mrs Koh. He was ready to start on a new dimension of painting.

Mrs Koh, who is a retired school teacher, spends much of her time perfecting her skills in the art of calligraphy, under the instruction of Mr Yip Chok Kai, a renowned Singapore calligrapher who is considered one of Singapore's national treasures. She also conducted a Charity Calligraphy Exhibition in aid of the Disabled People's Association from 4 - 8 September 1998 at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Exhibition Hall.

The master, Mr Yip Chok Kai himself, visited Mr Wan in June this year, when the introductory lesson was scheduled. He demonstrated how calligraphy is done and gave encouragement to their first disabled student. After this, Mrs Koh gave weekly lessons, developing in Mr Wan patience and confidence in creating the powerful strokes necessary for calligraphy. The lessons, which initially lasted an hour, were gradually extended, as Mr Wan's interest and confidence grew.

During the last two and a half months, Tack Wei has completed three pieces, which Mrs Koh put up during the calligraphy exhibition. In the process of creating these, Mr Wan has become more adept at manoeuvring the brush, as calligraphy requires controlled strokes. Mrs Koh feels that her student is a patient person as well as a fast learner. "Even a non-disabled person may not be able to write as well as he does," she complimented.

Although Mrs Koh is well-versed in several styles of calligraphy, she feels that the running script is most suitable for Mr Wan as it allows more flexibility.

Mr Wan is grateful for Mrs Koh's dedication and commitment to his development in calligraphy. He hopes that Mrs Koh will be able to continue giving him calligraphy lessons as he intends to further his skills in the art, and to be able to incorporate poetic verses in his paintings.

Looking back, Mr Wan recollects that the initial part of his life was centred around sports and technology; now, however, art has become his main focus. He wonders what is in store for his future.