Pathlight students in the spotlight

From left: Mr Phua, Jolie and Mr Muhammad Khairul at Pathlight's Artist Development Programme workshop for student and alumni artists.
From left: Mr Phua, Jolie and Mr Muhammad Khairul at Pathlight's Artist Development Programme workshop for student and alumni artists.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
From left: Ms Jacelyn Lim, deputy executive director of Autism Resource Centre, Ms Kho and Ms Loy. The umbrellas feature floral designs by Jolie, who also did the Art Faculty's mural in the background.
From left: Ms Jacelyn Lim, deputy executive director of Autism Resource Centre, Ms Kho and Ms Loy. The umbrellas feature floral designs by Jolie, who also did the Art Faculty's mural in the background.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Some of Mr Phua's works on display at the Art Faculty gallery in Enabling Village.
Some of Mr Phua's works on display at the Art Faculty gallery in Enabling Village.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Merchandise featuring designs by Pathlight’s students on sale in the school’s flagship store at Enabling Village.
Merchandise featuring designs by Pathlight’s students on sale in the school’s flagship store at Enabling Village.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

School's programme plays to the strengths and artistic gifts of students with autism

Still in his teens, artist Glenn Phua has visited the Istana and met Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The 19-year-old student at Pathlight School made a name for himself with his landscapes of the Singapore skyline, and his originals fly off the shelves at The Art Faculty gallery in Enabling Village.

Mr Phua is one of the eight students from the original cohort of Pathlight's Artist Development Programme (ADP), which started in 2011 and now has 36 participants.

Other students include Mr See Toh Sheng Jie, 19, who recently made headlines for designing the purse sported by Mrs Lee Hsien Loong during her White House visit.

Mrs Lee also took along Mr Phua's Supertree art work, which was presented to Mrs Michelle Obama.

For the school's principal of 10 years, Ms Linda Kho, the initiative is part of a push to respect the dignity of students with autism by playing to their strengths instead of forcing them into a mould.

All students at Pathlight are exposed to art education as part of the curriculum, whether in primary school, as part of the academic track in secondary school, or in the vocational programme. Students who are spotted for their artistic gifts are also invited to take part in the ADP, which currently takes place over four two-hour sessions on Saturdays at The Art Faculty.

Pathlight works with suppliers to print ADP students' drawings on everyday goods such as coasters, umbrellas and pouches. The merchandise was first sold at a small gift shop set up in 2009 at the school's Ang Mo Kio campus, but its flagship store is at Enabling Village, which opened last year.

"We don't want people to buy because they think it's for charity," said Ms Kho, 56, firmly. "The dignified part is when people pick up merchandise because it is a good-quality, beautiful product."

Even before the ADP was set up, Pathlight had ideas to encourage students to express themselves creatively.

Senior vice-principal Loy Sheau Mei, 51, who has been with the school since it was founded, reminisced fondly about a "Doodle Corner" - a box for students to slip in signed pictures they had drawn throughout the school day.

Teachers and administrators realised that their students had a wealth of talent that could be honed through a more formal system.

Ms Kho said: "We started to say, 'Let's have a bit more structure.' Once we uncover any student with a special talent, let's have this ADP."

Selected students were then given the opportunity to train with external art instructors, learning about the use of colour and different media.

The ADP has helped students like Mr Muhammad Khairul Asmi, 18, stretch their horizons. "At home he still draws cartoon characters," said his mother, 52-year-old housewife Kartini Samsuddin, "but at school he gets different perspectives on drawing, like bridges."

Parents also credit the ADP with helping their children come out of their shell.

Madam Fann Koh, 46, said that she is grateful for the change she has seen in her daughter, 12-year- old Jolie Lim, who is the designer of the mural that covers the external wall of The Art Faculty.

"Jolie faced a lot of bullying and didn't have many friends when young," Madam Koh, a housewife and former flight attendant, said. "Ever since she joined the ADP, she has become more open. She told me that she was finally feeling recognised, that she has worth and can do something."

Ms Kho said that sentiments like these are precisely what make the ADP one of a kind. She and Ms Loy spoke with passion about finding new platforms to exhibit students' work and their plans to keep the programme sustainable by bringing the ever-growing alumni cohorts back to serve as art instructors.

"Even after they leave Pathlight, they will always be our alumni and we will always be there for them," said Ms Kho.

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Correction note: An earlier version of the story stated that Ms Linda Kho served as principal for 13 years instead of 10 years. This has been corrected. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2016, with the headline 'Pathlight students in the spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe