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Breaking free from the limits of art

St Joseph's Home 1

Breaking free from the limits of art

Art is everywhere around us. What does art look like when it co-exists with the provision of palliative care?

Imagine living in a colourful world but only being able to see the darker shades. That’s the reality for Mr Thong Chew Lim, a resident at St Joseph’s Home, who lives with colour blindness. However, that did not stop him from doing what he currently loves at the age of 96, which is creating artwork.

Upon meeting the warm-hearted Mr Thong, he would show you his folder of almost 30 artworks, each one featuring his fond memories, including scenes from Taiping, Malaysia, where he grew up.

As Mr Thong reminisces about his younger days, it’s evident that he loves sharing his story with others, especially his growing-up years and leaving life’s lessons as a legacy.

ART AS EXPRESSION

Going through his paintings of Taiping, Mr Thong would fondly share about his first 14 years of life there. Living with his grandmother, uncle, and cousins, life was simple. On some days, his grandmother would bring him along to watch Cantonese opera. And on other days, he relished a rewarding fishing trip or a bicycle ride around his house.

“Art offers residents an opportunity to be seen beyond their medical conditions. They become people with different roles, memories, and values. These memories, when made tangible by artwork, serve as a visual aid that empowers residents to share about themselves. It also helps staff understand and appreciate residents, especially when they do not speak the same language,” says Ms Tan Hsiu Li, an art therapist at St Joseph’s Home.

Hsiu Li uses the visual arts as the primary form of expression to promote overall well-being, such as by reducing negative psychological symptoms and improving the self-esteem and self-identity of residents like Mr Thong. Given that he had never held a paintbrush before, Mr Thong initially refused Hsiu Li’s invitation to art-making. She took a few months to build rapport with him and understand his unique needs and interests. She then made adaptations, such as increasing the sessions to an hour and writing or spelling the colours onto the paint palette to inform Mr Thong of the colours available. These efforts familiarised him with the media and empowered him to use art as a form of expression.

Now, Mr Thong can proclaim, “I love art! It brings me back to my younger days, and I feel happy seeing my precious memories come to life.”

Mr Thong Chew Lim displaying one of his artworks entitled Taiping Lake

ART AS IDENTITY

To build his confidence and interest in art, Hsiu Li scheduled regular sessions with him and encouraged him. She also introduced him to various artists and their artistic styles, showing him that he was free to develop his own.

Art-making also strengthened his sense of self-identity. Painting by painting, his life stories were uncovered, and he had a chance to not only recall but to retell them through art exhibitions. He discovered a passion for the arts!

Through the art-making process, his attributes of perseverance and hard work shone through. Being colour-blind, he needed more time to understand the mood of the images and find the right colours. He also needed practice handling a brush. His first artwork was of a hand, completed weeks after his first session with Hsiu Li.

Believing in the potential he has shown through his courageous attitude, focus, and confident brush strokes has finally led to him taking the lead in deciding what he wants to paint by himself and utilising art as an alternate way of sharing his life stories with others.

ART AS LEGACY

This year, Mr Thong produced two masterpieces to be showcased at art exhibitions at Corporation Primary School, one of our long-standing community partners. Residents visited the school to share their artwork with teachers and students.

Proudly presenting his favourite of the two—a sunset by the seaside inspired by Indonesia’s Thousand Islands—he talked about how he loved the peacefulness it brings. Sketching the outline and then adding in yellow, orange, and blue hues also reminded him of the years spent working in Indonesia as an accountant, as he encourages teachers and pupils alike to make the best memories of their time.

Mr Thong also gave a talk during the school morning assembly this August, sharing his bliss of growing up and settling down in Singapore, as well as his art-making process and encouragement for the younger ones.

His artwork left a deep impression on teachers and students, who were inspired by his resilience, perseverance, and demonstration of endurance through his every word and action. He even received handwritten appreciation cards from the students with messages such as “Mr Thong, you’re really good at drawing”, “I like your drawing so much” and “Please come to our school again”.

It’s what drives him to connect with the community through art. He even hopes to one day sell his paintings to raise funds for others in need.

Photos: Tan Hsiu Li

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