Making art out of life’s struggles

Published: September 10, 2017  |  Source: channelnewsasia.com/  | Spinal Cord Injury:
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After becoming paralysed at the age of 22, Gilbert Tan thought his life was over. But perseverance and dedication saw him become a world-renowned artist who paints with the brush in his mouth.

SINGAPORE: Gilbert Tan was just 22 years old when a regular visit to a swimming pool ended life as he knew it.

He remembers what happened vividly. The year was 1983, and it was just five days before National Day. Then an architectural draftsman at Hitachi, he was with his colleagues at Delta Sports Complex in Redhill.

They were having fun, jumping into the pool, but the eighth or ninth jump proved to be the last time he would go swimming – or walk, for that matter.

There was no external evidence of what happened that evening, but Mr Tan had suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving the now 56-year-old a tetraplegic, unable to move his body from his chest down.

Doctors at Alexandra Hospital where he was treated said that his head may have hit the swimming pool floor or that he may have turned his head violently, leading to the injury.

“That night is not a time I like to recall or remember because it has been 35 years. A lot has happened in the last 35 years,” Mr Tan said. But still, he told Channel NewsAsia his story of pain, love and strength.

Mr Gilbert Tan with some of his work. (Photo: Howard Law)

The first few years were terrible, he said, with his family, and especially his mother, bearing the brunt of his frustration and exasperation at his condition.

Even the doctors were not sure if his parents would want him to continue to live at home with them, he said. They thought his severe condition would mean he would be institutionalised.

“When the doctors said ‘you’re never gonna be able to ever walk again’, they approached my parents. They asked my mum if she still wanted her son.”

She stood by him. But even with the support of his family, it was no mean feat for him to start picking up the pieces of his life again.

“There were lots of tears, lots of quarrels, lots of trying to place blame on someone, something, somewhere … trying to make sense of the whole situation, trying to comprehend and fathom where does this lead,” he said.

He said it was like becoming a baby again, always needing the help of someone else.

“In the hospital, wetting the bed, and having no control over passing motion, is quite another story by itself. Not being able to scratch your own nose – you can rub it, but you can’t scratch it – these little things were terrible,” he said of his challenges.

Add that to the doctor saying at the time that there was a likelihood Mr Tan might survive about five years.

But in the third year after the accident, he realised that he may yet have a life to live.

PICKING UP MOUTH PAINTING AS WAY TO REBUILD HIS LIFE

While he does not deny that there have been tough moments and a “bad patch” with depression, Mr Tan created a new existence for himself.

He has become a world-renowned mouth painter, with his works displayed in permanent exhibitions in Washington, San Francisco and London.

It was by chance that Mr Tan learnt about this type of painting, where the artist wields a brush in his mouth. He was hospitalised in Tan Tock Seng Hospital at the same time as Mr Tan Kok Leong, who was creating art in this way.

“I got a chance to see his paintings – he was doing oil painting then – and it was awesome. After I got discharged, when I got home, I decided to try to pick it up,” he said.

Mr Tan at his home after he was paralysed. (Photo: Howard Law)

“In the hospital, wetting the bed, and having no control over passing motion, is quite another story by itself. Not being able to scratch your own nose – you can rub it, but you can’t scratch it – these little things were terrible,” he said of his challenges.

Add that to the doctor saying at the time that there was a likelihood Mr Tan might survive about five years.

But in the third year after the accident, he realised that he may yet have a life to live.

PICKING UP MOUTH PAINTING AS WAY TO REBUILD HIS LIFE

While he does not deny that there have been tough moments and a “bad patch” with depression, Mr Tan created a new existence for himself.

He has become a world-renowned mouth painter, with his works displayed in permanent exhibitions in Washington, San Francisco and London.

It was by chance that Mr Tan learnt about this type of painting, where the artist wields a brush in his mouth. He was hospitalised in Tan Tock Seng Hospital at the same time as Mr Tan Kok Leong, who was creating art in this way.

“I got a chance to see his paintings – he was doing oil painting then – and it was awesome. After I got discharged, when I got home, I decided to try to pick it up,” he said.

Mr Tan painting grapes using the Chinese brush technique. (Photo: Howard Law)

“In the hospital, wetting the bed, and having no control over passing motion, is quite another story by itself. Not being able to scratch your own nose – you can rub it, but you can’t scratch it – these little things were terrible,” he said of his challenges.

Add that to the doctor saying at the time that there was a likelihood Mr Tan might survive about five years.

But in the third year after the accident, he realised that he may yet have a life to live.

PICKING UP MOUTH PAINTING AS WAY TO REBUILD HIS LIFE

While he does not deny that there have been tough moments and a “bad patch” with depression, Mr Tan created a new existence for himself.

He has become a world-renowned mouth painter, with his works displayed in permanent exhibitions in Washington, San Francisco and London.

It was by chance that Mr Tan learnt about this type of painting, where the artist wields a brush in his mouth. He was hospitalised in Tan Tock Seng Hospital at the same time as Mr Tan Kok Leong, who was creating art in this way.

“I got a chance to see his paintings – he was doing oil painting then – and it was awesome. After I got discharged, when I got home, I decided to try to pick it up,” he said.

One of Mr Tan’s abstract art paintings. (Photo: Gilbert Tan)

“In the hospital, wetting the bed, and having no control over passing motion, is quite another story by itself. Not being able to scratch your own nose – you can rub it, but you can’t scratch it – these little things were terrible,” he said of his challenges.

Add that to the doctor saying at the time that there was a likelihood Mr Tan might survive about five years.

But in the third year after the accident, he realised that he may yet have a life to live.

PICKING UP MOUTH PAINTING AS WAY TO REBUILD HIS LIFE

While he does not deny that there have been tough moments and a “bad patch” with depression, Mr Tan created a new existence for himself.

He has become a world-renowned mouth painter, with his works displayed in permanent exhibitions in Washington, San Francisco and London.

It was by chance that Mr Tan learnt about this type of painting, where the artist wields a brush in his mouth. He was hospitalised in Tan Tock Seng Hospital at the same time as Mr Tan Kok Leong, who was creating art in this way.

“I got a chance to see his paintings – he was doing oil painting then – and it was awesome. After I got discharged, when I got home, I decided to try to pick it up,” he said.

Mr Tan has fit his brushes with rubber tubing to prevent himself from biting into the bamboo, which breaks and splinters. (Photo: Howard Law)

He also enjoys mimicking celebrities, which was evident as he curled his upper lip for an Elvis Presley impression and brought on deep tones for a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.

“It’s another way to show people that as a paralysed person, there are still many things you can get done. It just takes practice and perseverance. You may not be the best, but you can still have some fun in your life,” he said.

He first realised he could bring joy to others through instruments and singing when he had to entertain visually impaired people, and could not paint for them.

When Channel NewsAsia was at his flat in Sengkang, there was little of the once-broken man to be seen.

He cracked jokes, making light of his situation by referring to himself as a “sit-down comedian” and a “hot hunk” because of his inability to perspire after the accident, therefore trapping heat in his body.

He also cat-called his wife of 14 years as a way to draw her attention, and bantered with her easily.

Mr Tan met his wife when she, as a student, visited the hospital he was in to help patients with tasks like towel wipes and feeding. He wooed her for nine years before she agreed to be his wife.

While his wife prefers to stay out of the limelight, asking not to be named, he says that without her, he would not be able to paint. She sets up everything for him, and is at his beck and call.

Mr Tan playing the kazoo. (Photo: Howard Law)

“Fate brought us together. We have been married for 14 years. That’s a lot longer than a lot of the marriages I know, longer than Brangelina,” he joked.

What helps in their relationship is that when he met her, it was in hospital, so she knew all about him and what she was getting herself into, he said.

Despite years of struggles, Mr Tan who also suffers from diabetes and gout, had not seen the last of his major difficulties. In May, he was dealt another blow: Non-alcoholic cirrhosis.

He was rushed to Changi General Hospital in an ambulance, and was hospitalised.

“The doctor said I might not have lasted another night if I didn’t call the ambulance. My blood count was very low, and my blood pressure was very low,” he said.

He is getting used to a lack of energy and pain in his joints. When he was younger, he wanted to do bigger pieces, but is now happy working within his limitations.

Mr Tan, who has travelled extensivel, and recently went to Tokyo, counts himself blessed.

It is partly the way he lives his life that has seen him through his pain, and a sign hangs big and bright in his room that reminds him.

“Life isn’t fair, get over it.”

Source: CNA/ja