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PAINTING IS SANCTUARY FOR MY AUTISTIC SON

by Choo Kah Ying

Penguin Love (a recent painting from Bali) by Jean-Sebastien Choo)

31 x 23 cm, canvas panel, watercolor and poster color, SGD140 + shipping costs

In my family, Sebastien my autistic son is the artist. I am the writer.

What's he painted? Can he explain?

People would often ask. I have no satisfactory answers, that is, answers that would make people resist their reflexive need to wonder, to blurt these queries out loud. Because they wish that the painting could be explained.

In our mainstream world, we would label his paintings "abstract." But for Sebastien who is a non-verbal autistic, his painting process is instinctive and intuitive — driven by his need for survival, the creative impulse, and the sensory experience. When he's in his "painting" sanctuary — fully immersed in the colors and the dynamic of their transformation through water, he's momentarily freed from his anxieties of living in our world. These are the moments when he does not engage in his obsessive-compulsive coping behaviors. He's just painting.

This is why his artwork belongs to the realm of outsider art — it has a purpose and value that goes beyond any formal artistic tradition.

Nonetheless, as the writer, I can serve as Sebastien's voice — his intermediary with the outside world — and offer an interpretation of his paintings. The naming process is when I get to move out of the realm of text and challenge myself to "see" with my mind’s eye and translate image into words.

With Penguin Love, it was easy. I see a mama penguin and a baby penguin. Sebastien also happens to love penguins, at least during his younger days — gazing mesmerized at the real-life ones at the zoo and emperor penguins in a documentary.

Penguin Love.

Perfect.

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