Hanzhen Yap is a 16-year-old Malaysian artist with autism whose intricate sketches of historical buildings, animals and everyday objects have been shown in 27 exhibitions. He lives in Johor Bahru. For our interview below, Hanzhen's parents read him our questions. “For questions that he doesn't answer frequently, Hanzhen struggles to find the words,” says his mother Yvonne. His parents have elaborated on some answers. Please click the image above to see it in full.
BLOOM: What do you enjoy drawing the most and why?
Hanzhen Yap: I like to draw buildings. Buildings are nice, with lots of details. Arulmigu has the most details.
Parents: Hanzhen loves details. Somehow this has always been the right formula for him—the more complex is the object, the better is the outcome. Hanzhen is referring to his favourite sketch of the Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthanam Temple in Johor Bahru (see image below). This small Hindu temple serves the vibrant Indian community that [includes] some of the busiest and ethnically colourful shops around that area. Hanzhen seems to have captured the essence of this vibrancy in his sketch.
BLOOM: Do you draw real-life objects or from photos?
Hanzhen Yap: I draw from the photographs.
Parents: Hanzhen will take photographs of the object from many different angles and then he will select the angle that he prefers to sketch. In the case of a building, the ideal situation is when he is able to visit the site and spend some time there to absorb the atmosphere and the feel of the place before he starts on his drawing.
BLOOM: How did you learn to draw?
Hanzhen Yap: When I was small, Mom taught me how to draw. I also practised drawing with Pa. We drew all the things in the house.
Parents: Hanzhen is referring to the training sessions where we taught him speech and reading by pairing every word with a thumbnail sketch. We devised this simple speech training technique because he was a visual learner and could memorize what he saw. Together we drew everything around the house, from cups to keys, telephones, credit cards and even his father's feet! Soon he began to draw better than any of us.
BLOOM: How are you able to capture so much detail in your drawing? When I look at your elephant, for instance, I see so much more than I would normally see.
Hanzhen Yap: That’s my elephant “Loxodonta Africana!”(see below) I see a lot of details on the elephant’s face. It’s rough, it’s serious, and many many things...
Parents: Hanzhen sees objects in incredible details and interprets them in an ornate fashion, clearly displaying a unique style.
BLOOM: What is most difficult about drawing?
Hanzhen Yap: Difficult... when it’s on a big paper… like the JB Skyline. I get very tired after that.
Parents: His detailing to perfection and his desire for correctness are what make him tired.
BLOOM: Did having parents who are architects help you in your drawing?
Hanzhen Yap: Yes, Pa and Ma helped me to choose the picture to draw.
Parents: We are helping him create popular sketches and collections. We are like his manager!
BLOOM: How do you hope your drawings affect people?
Parents: His drawings give a lot of hope to gifted special artists. It opens up possibilities for parents seeking a future for their kids.
BLOOM: How do you get ideas for what to draw? I liked your collection on kettles. How did you decide to do that?
Hanzhen Yap: Pa and Ma helped me to choose.
Parents: We know the subjects that he will excel in sketching, thus we would channel his energy towards them. If we had already prepared a collection of subjects, then he would choose the ones that he prefers to draw first. For example, he had chosen to draw the Sydney Opera House, the Town Hall and the Harbour Bridge as his first subjects from our last Sydney trip. He enjoys sketching in a series that has a finite collection, almost mathematical in deciding.
BLOOM: How has your autism affected you?
Parents: Hanzhen has been told he’s autistic but he is not able to grasp why he is different and how autism has affected him. However, even before he was told, he appeared to be conscious of being different. Often, when in public or during functions, we see him looking at his brother for cues on how to act. He takes our directions very seriously in public areas, knowing not to confuse others who do not know his condition. However, he lets his hair down in the company of people that he knows!
BLOOM: What advice would you give to other youth who have autism?
Hanzhen: Try and draw like I draw and… become successful!
Parents: Great one, Hanzhen!
BLOOM: What would you like to do in the future?
Hanzhen Yap: I want to go to university… to learn to draw better.
Parents: Upon completing his O-levels, Hanzhen hopes to get a placement at the reputable Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore to further his art education at the tertiary level.