Bringing dignity and hope to children with special needs one brushstroke at a time
Christine Leow // June 12, 2020, 6:38 pm
Art teacher Ng Geok Seng believes that helping special needs children bloom as artists is God’s calling for him. Ng is seen here with his student, Celine Ong, who started out painting animals and has since progressed to scenery. All photos courtesy of Ng Geok Seng unless otherwise stated.
In bold strokes, the landscape of Singapore comes alive. Nostalgia depicted in the red splashes of Chinese lanterns. Movement suggested in a flutter of blue shirts on a bamboo pole. Hope blooming in hints of lemony sunshine on ageing walls.
“I saw how art transformed them. They became more joyful and that brought joy to the families as well,”
When Ng Geok Seng, 52, paints, he pours his soul into his art.
It is with the same passion that he imparts his skills to his charges because Ng is not just an artist, he is an art teacher with some very extraordinary students.
He started his teaching stint at Very Special Arts Singapore (VSA) in the charity’s nascency, teaching painting and handicraft to people with disabilities.
“I was an art student at LASALLE at that time and Very Special Arts had a space there.
“I got to know someone from VSA and she asked me to teach some of the children there,” said Ng who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art (Painting) from LASALLE College of the Arts before getting a degree in Fine Arts from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
His class of five to six then included children and youths. Some were in wheelchairs, some had autism.
“I saw how art transformed them. They became more joyful and that brought joy to the families as well,” said Ng, whose wife Seok Hee Peng, 50, also teaches art to special children.
The experience awakened a seed of desire that had been upon his heart for years.
Brother who never got a chance
He considers his early engagement with VSA a divine appointment that “God brought together” because engaging people, especially children with special needs and disabilities, is something close to home for Ng.
“There was no opportunity for him to shine in anything even if he wanted to.”
He has an older brother who has special needs.
“My second brother was six at the time. I was four. Our older brother who was 10 was giving him a piggy-back ride when both of them fell backwards.
“My second brother hit his head on the floor and fainted. We rushed him to the hospital.”
But the fall caused permanent brain damage, leaving his brother, now 54, with seizures for the rest of his life and the mental capability of a child.
“In those days, parents weren’t so educated about such matters. So, my parents just let him continue in mainstream school.
“When he couldn’t get past Primary Four, they kept him at home. There was no opportunity for him to shine in anything even if he wanted to.
When Ng thinks of his brother, he sees the latent potential in children who are not given the opportunity to express their potential.
Every child an artist
In the 20 years since Ng began teaching art professionally, he has taught a wide spectrum of students. But those with special needs and disabilities are still dearest to him.
“If you give a special child the right guidance, their hearts open up when they reach their artistic potential.”
“I give them priority,” he admitted.
“I have seen how art can touch hearts. If you give a special child the right guidance, you can see their hearts open up when they reach their artistic potential.”
For Ng, there is no child who cannot be taught no matter his challenges because “every child is an artist”.
“I begin by identifying their capabilities rather than their incapabilities,” he said.
Those with better motor skills he would introduce to Chinese painting and water colour painting because “you need to move faster since they dry up quickly”.
Those who tire easily, use colour pencils, doing pencil shading, because this allows for long intervals of rest in between.
A pouch with Sheng Jie’s dinosaur design made the news when Mdm Ho Ching used it on an official US visit.
“I also talk to them and see what they like. I have some students who enjoy manga and I help them explore this in their art,” said Ng.
Under his personalised guidance, several of his students have indeed shone.
One of them is See Toh Sheng Jie.
His love of dinosaurs saw him drawing and sculpting the prehistoric animals for hours on end. When Sheng Jie’s father showed Ng an outline of a dinosaur rendered by his son, Ng encouraged him to transfer the figures onto A3 size papers so they could be printed on a pouch.
One of the pouches produced with Sheng Jie’s dinosaur design made the news when Mdm Ho Ching, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, was photographed with it on an official visit to the United States in 2016. Sheng Jie was 19 then.
Another student, Isaac Lim, who had both Duchenne muscular dystrophy and autism, won a VSA competition with a piece called Seed of Peace. He was 14 then.
That painting hung in Prime Minister Lee’s office. Isaac passed away in 2019 at the age of 28.
Because of Ng dedication to develop every child, many of his special needs students and students with disabilities remain with him for years.
“I let them open up to me and then, as they grow, I introduce them to more subject matters and different styles to help them diversify,” said Ng.
“Over time, they also talk to me about their thoughts and feelings.”
Bitten by student but he won’t give up
The bond he has built are hard-earned ones.
One girl came to Ng at the age of eight. She would take hours just to do a simple line drawing.
“When you give her something a bit more complicated, she would pull out her hair. I would come to her table and find strands of her hair all over it,” Ng said.
Her mother was also impatient to see results.
When it gets really overwhelming and the temper tantrums rage unbated, Ng prays.
“I told her mother: ‘Just let her. Be more patient. Just wait and see. I know that she is teachable. It’s just a matter of time’.”
Today, the girl is 21 and, though still slow, has progressed to using markers and acrylic paint to draw scenery and people.
Another child with autism and ADHD would have angry outbursts.
“He would get frustrated and bite himself, pull his hair and he would also try to bite me.”
For him, Ng uses distraction, turning his attention to other drawings, as well as regular breaks.
Being among the early adopters, Ng has had to hone his teaching techniques through research as well as experience and observation. “I listen to them, I see their posture or the look in their eyes to see how far to challenge them.”
“I read up on their conditions, I meet other teachers and observe their classes. Now there are YouTube video I can watch on different disabilities.”
When it gets overwhelming and the temper tantrums rage unbated, Ng prays.
“It doesn’t matter if they are Christians or not. I just pray and I sit back and calm my soul,” said Ng.
A lifelong mission
Apart from teaching, Ng, who owns art company B Inspire, has also organised exhibitions for his students to raise funds for charities.
He hopes to do more.
“I want to have a studio and gallery where they can come and paint and have a community as well as showcase their works,” he said.
“I’m saving up for it.”
This champion of the special needs children believes that working with them is God’s calling for him.
“When given the right push, they can excel. This is what I can do for them.”
“Art has always been my first love. My parents asked me to study hard and be a doctor or lawyer instead,” said Ng.
“But I was stubborn. I persisted in being an artist.”
He taught himself using books borrowed from the library before joining his school’s Art Club and then taking Art as a subject for both his ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examinations.
He says his single-mindedness is God’s leading.
“I don’t have any children so maybe this is how God wants me to contribute,” he mused.
“I met an old friend who had gone on to do a Masters in Art and is teaching in a university and he asked me, ‘Why are you still teaching children? Why special needs and disabled children?’
“This is what God has placed me here to do. Until He tells me otherwise, this is what I will continue to do.
“When these children see what they can achieve through art, it gives them confidence.
“Their disability may have limited their choices but, when given the right push, they can excel. This is what I can do for them.”