Madeline and Steve

Madeline presenting Steve with an album of his paintings in 2019. All photos courtesy of Madeline Ang or Steve Aw Yong.

A blend of crimson and golden rays wrap the sky in a warm glow, casting their reflection on the ocean. Sunset is one of 40 paintings by Steve Aw Yong, a 64-year-old artist with cerebral palsy, that were snapped up at an exhibition last year.

The exhibition was held last February at a local shopping mall and featured various artists, including Steve.

Despite it being his first exhibition as an artist, the event was a success. All 40 paintings, priced at $50 each, were completely sold out, proving his talent as an artist.

Steve’s flair for art can be seen in the eye-catching paintings he painstakingly produces.

Unknown to many, it was his long-time friend Madeline Ang, 51, who secured a space for him at the exhibition.

“He wanted to be affirmed as an artist. He wanted his work to be admired.”

In her initial broadcast of the event on social media, she had not expected that all 17 art pieces would be purchased within five hours.

However, Steve’s reaction to the good news was not one of delight but sadness.

He was disappointed that he would have no paintings to show at the exhibition if they were sold out before it even began.

Madeline, who is a homemaker, writer and poet, told Salt&Light: “He wanted to be affirmed as an artist. He wanted his work to be admired. He wanted people to go to the exhibition to take a look.”

Not wanting her friend to be disheartened, Madeline scrambled to get more of Steve’s paintings to be displayed and avoided making a Facebook announcement like the first time. It was not a surprise that all of Steve’s paintings were sold out again.

An unlikely friendship

Beneath this success is the strong friendship Steve and Madeline share.

The duo met when Madeline joined Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church in 2011.

One of the church members would bring Steve along to the Sunday service, as part of the church’s outreach ministry. This same church member shared with Madeline about Steve’s love for painting and modelled how to befriend Steve, who was born with cerebral palsy. Steve would communicate by typing on a mobile device with a stick attached to a headband or placed in his mouth.

Madeline followed the church member’s example in approaching and befriending him, and their friendship naturally blossomed.

She said: “I would say, ‘Hi Steve!’ whenever I see him and he would move about excitedly in his wheelchair and greet me cheerily.”

Madeline and Steve became fast friends who bonded over Steve’s paintings.

Soon, Steve began to send her pictures of his paintings through WhatsApp.

Steve learned to paint many years ago after he became a resident of the Bishan Home for the Intellectually Disabled. Before Covid-19, he received weekly lessons from an art teacher. The teacher guided Steve, who painted using a paintbrush attached to his headband or controlled with his mouth.

Having known Steve for close to a decade, Madeline saw how his paintings improved over the years.

Even though it is not easy, Steve perseveres in his passion.

She said: “He would send me his paintings every time he finished.

“Sometimes he would say, ‘I have been doing this painting for a few weeks, this colour should have been this way, I don’t like this, I could have done better’.”

She added: “He has a lot of high expectations of himself so I would encourage him and say, ‘Well done!’ and send the clapping emoji.”

A fervent prayer

Madeline grew to admire and support Steve’s work, and even more so Steve as an artist because she knew how much effort he put into each painting.

She said: “As an artist, he sees something and wants to communicate it to us, but to get it out there, every single stroke costs him so much energy and strain.

“Every painting that he showed me is so beautiful, because I see it through his eyes.”

“Every painting that he showed me is so beautiful, because I see it through his eyes.”

Impressed, Madeline wanted to find a way for Steve to share his art with his visitors at the home.

She collated the pictures he sent her into an album and presented it to him as a gift in December 2019. At the same time, she also asked God for the opportunity to recognise Steve as an artist.

Madeline recalled the prayer she made: “God, help me to be able to affirm Steve as an artist!”

She added: “I didn’t even know how God was going to do it, but I had this deep desire to do this for him.

“So I just excitedly waited and opened my eyes to opportunities. If God opened the door or window, I was not going to lose it.”

Little did she know the amazing ways in which God would use her to be His instrument in affirming Steve – and later on other artists.

An unexpected opportunity

Madeline, who is married with two daughters, received an offer to have her younger daughter’s paintings displayed at the exhibition-cum-sale last February. Her younger daughter is an artist who uses her work to raise funds for charities.

It was then when Madeline recalled her prayer for Steve two years before. Boldly, she told the organiser about Steve and her desire to launch his works.

In the weeks leading up to the exhibition, Madeline suffered pain in her back.

To her surprise, the organiser gave her the green light immediately. Steve was granted one wall to display his paintings.

Madeline laughed as she related the experience: “I believe God must have intervened and given Steve the favour.”

That was not all. Through the exhibition, Madeline would continue to witness God’s hand at work in fulfilling His plans, in His own way.

In the weeks leading up to the exhibition, Madeline suffered pain in her back. The pain was so excruciating that it left her bedridden. A mobile doctor came to her home to give her injections, telling her the pain was muscular in nature.

She later consulted an orthopaedic surgeon, who diagnosed her with a slipped disc.

By then, the exhibition was in two days.

Madeline was determined to attend the exhibition and show support for Steve. She popped some painkillers, aiming to stay for half an hour so she could see her friend’s efforts pay off.

Madeline was thankful to be present for Steve’s exhibition in spite of her slipped disc.

Madeline said: “God very graciously allowed me to get out of bed and go there.”

At the exhibition, the organisers and chairperson asked if someone could introduce Steve as an artist. Being the only person who knew about Steve and his artwork, Madeline braved her pain and shared his story.

“People were very touched because behind the painting, they got to know the artist. It gave the painting a lot more depth because so much laborious effort goes into one painting.

“It is easy for us to do one stroke, but for him it is very strenuous physically, mentally and emotionally and yet he always gave his best.”

Steve attended the exhibition over a video conference as the home wanted to protect him from Covid-19. But his excitement was palpable after seeing everyone clapping and giving him a standing ovation.

Madeline said: “Steve was jumping up and down in his wheelchair.”

Each of Steve’s paintings holds a special meaning for him, especially ‘Lone Tree Upon the Snow’.

If Steve had to pick a favourite among his paintings, it would be the Lone Tree Upon the Snow.

Through his social worker, he shared that he wanted to be like the tree, standing firm and braving the cold no matter what life throws at him.

Not only was Steve affirmed as an artist, he was also able to earn his own income for the first time. With the money he made from the sale of his sold-out artwork, Steve asked his social worker to buy a bouquet of flowers for Madeline, who was still suffering from a slipped disc.

A God with His own ways

The success of the exhibition and affirmation of Steve as an artist was a contrast to Madeline’s pain, both physical and emotional.

Her slipped disc caused her to be practically immobile. She was not able to go about her usual activities and serve God in her usual ministries.

This took a toll on her emotionally as she has always enjoyed using the gifts that God has given her to bless others.

At her lowest, she asked God to heal her or take her.

She said: “I actually told Him, ‘God, I work so hard for you and this is what I get?’”

In the midst of her suffering, God revealed to Madeline that He is sovereign in a number of ways.

At her lowest, she asked God to heal her or take her.

One way was how the organiser readily granted Steve a space for the exhibition upon Madeline’s request. She saw how it gave him the recognition as an artist and the dignity of earning his own income.

Madeline said: “God showed me that if I ask boldly, He will give it to me.

“I only asked for an exhibition for Steve to be affirmed, but God created such a situation where all the paintings were bought.”

She also saw how God used her at her lowest to remind her of who He is.

After the exhibition, Madeline received a bouquet of flowers from Steve that contained a card which read: “Thank you so much for helping me to fulfil my dream.”

The social worker said to Madeline: “Steve has never earned money his whole life. You enabled him to earn this amount of money and empowered him to buy a bouquet of flowers and send them to you.”

Steve was very grateful to Madeline that he could be affirmed as an artist.

All this while, Madeline was unaware that Steve had harboured the desire to be recognised as an artist. She had been under the impression that it was just a hobby or activity for him. The card expressed otherwise, and she marvelled at how God allowed things to fall into place.

Steve told Salt&Light through his social worker: “I feel that God has given me many blessings all my life despite my disability! Otherwise, the art exhibition would not have been possible. God also sent Madeline and my social worker to help me fulfil my dreams.”

He added: “As Christ mentioned in John 16:24, ‘Until now you have not asked for anything in My Name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.’

“I am glad that my earnest prayers have reached His ears, allowing my joy to be made complete.

“The possibility and success of my art exhibition certainly served as a direct testimony of God’s boundless love and grace upon me. From the strength that Christ has endowed on me, I will strive to endure in my love for Him till the very end.”

Madeline understood how God put His plan in place when she received this card from Steve.

Upon receiving Steve’s card, Madeline realised: “God didn’t give me what I wanted in terms of my physical healing but He showed me other things that are eternal.

“Here I am asking for physical healing but He’s telling me that in the light of His Kingdom, He’s using Steve to encourage people and showing me that He can perform a miracle.”

“He allowed me to be used as an instrument at the weakest point of my life, so that I would say that it is all about Him … ”

Madeline also remembered that the success of Steve’s launch happened just as she was diagnosed with a slipped disc, and realised how God works in ways that she does not understand.

She was humbled by the fact that she could not give as much as she liked and became a receiver instead, with one friend sending her for weekly physiotherapy sessions for months and another whose helper brought a home-cooked five course meal for Madeline’s family once a week.

She said: “In God’s very unfathomable and mysterious ways, He allowed me to be used as an instrument at the weakest point of my life, so that I would say that it is all about Him and give all glory to Him.”

God also brought her comfort through verses such as Isaiah 41:10 and Psalm 42:11, where she learned not to be dismayed and fearful but to praise God even in spite of her poor health.

Chapter 2: Steve & Friends

Madeline continues to see God’s hand at work.

The art exhibition organisers enjoyed Steve’s art so much, they offered him booth space at one of their exhibitions this year.

“Even though I wanted a physical restoration, God was healing me spiritually.”

This time, Madeline thought of making use of the space to display the paintings of other residents at the Bishan Home for the Intellectually Disabled. The request was readily granted, and the exhibition entitled Steve & Friends was held in May this year.

While each artist has sold at least one painting, Madeline hopes that all the paintings will find a home.

With thankfulness brimming in her heart, she said: “Circumstantially, I had to surrender fully and was blessed with a front-row seat to watch God perform one miracle after another in Steve’s life, the other Bishan Home residents and even mine.

“God showed me that He was always working behind the scenes, always in control to orchestrate His great plan. He also taught me to be a gracious receiver, not just a generous giver.”

Madeline concluded: “Even though I wanted a physical restoration, God was healing me spiritually, imputing in me the precious lessons of His sovereignty and faithfulness.”

Steve & Friends may have come to a close but the paintings are still up for sale.

Steve’s paintings are priced at $100 per piece, while the other residents’ paintings are going at $50 per piece.

To view and purchase the paintings, please contact Guan Ning or Jessie from the Bishan Home for the Intellectually Disabled at 98625636. Alternatively, you may send an email to: [email protected].


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About the author

Gracia Yap

Gracia is an aspiring journalist who loves hearing the unique stories of others. In her free time, she wants nothing more than to chill with Netflix or a good book. While her sense of direction is questionable, writing for Salt&Light as an intern helps her make better sense of life.