Portrait of the Artist as a Young Filipino on a Journey

J.A. and his mom, Marie Zelie, at the New York Stock Exchange in 2012, showing the U.N. stamp that featured his painting (Photo by Vincent Tan)

J. A. cuts and pastes and glances at the kids, who are watching him. He gives them minimal instructions on how to create a collage and lets them go with the flow. He cuts, he pastes. They cut, they paste. He is a patient teacher. The kids are his nephews, ages 11 and 7, who’ve seen his paintings and admired them. They don’t know the challenges he’s had to overcome to become a professional painter, to become an independent adult.

“Autism, ” the kids shrug. They know it makes people different. There are kids with autism in school; they accept them. Everyone is different. Autistic, artistic, to the kids in this impromptu mini-art class, it’s the same–it’s J. A. and he’s pretty cool.

I know this, because I watched this scenario unfold in front of me. The two kids are my children, and they have only nice things to say about their Tito J. A. They think he is a bit quirky, but they don’t mind. He tends to do things repeatedly, like watch the same video over and over again, or tell the same stories when he comes to visit them. They know that when they are too noisy, it stresses him out, so they try to calm down when he’s around. J.A. needs routine, structure and calm to cope with everyday life. In his art, that’s where things can get messy and unexpected.

But when does a parent know when their child is merely doodling or has found his life’s passion? One just knows, my aunt said.

J. A. Tan is a twenty-something Vancouver-based Filipino visual artist. Last year, one of his paintings, “Victory, ” was featured on a United Nations Stamp to commemorate Autism Awareness Month. He has exhibited in Manila, the U. S. and Canada. This March he adds another feather to his cap by being part of a group show in London. He continues to work out of his studio on Granville Island, Vancouver, Canada.

My younger son wants to know, “How can I be an artist like Tito J. A.? ”

Where does one begin? I can try to tell you what he was like growing up. I remember some of the milestones J. A. achieved, like finally speaking at five years old; but to give you an accurate picture, I decided to go to the source–and rang up his mom, my aunt, Marie Zelie Tan.

“He always had pencil and paper in hand way before he could talk. He would take any pencil he saw and any paper and just draw. Remember how he would rewind all the Betamax tapes (of Disney movies)? He apparently put to memory what he watched then drew it. He also used crayons a lot, ” she said.

So that’s what he was doing, I said, remembering those days, when J. A. would fast forward and rewind to the same scene in the “Aladdin” cartoon over and over. Then he would show me all these drawings of Aladdin and Jafar. They were pretty cool.


J. A. Tan will be a keynote speaker at the the 13th Biennial Conference of the International Association of Special Education at the University of British Columbia, Canada on July 8, 2013. He will also have a solo exhibit from August 21st to September 3rd at the Artistpace, Ayala Museum in Manila. As part of this show, he will be conducting a free painting session for kids.

For more information about upcoming exhibits and current projects, visit http://www.artofjatan.com LIKE his page on Facebook.

Here is a video that gives a glimpse of J. A. at work. The video was created by his older brother, screenwriter Thomas Tan.


But when does a parent know when their child is merely doodling or has found his life’s passion? One just knows, my aunt said. And she continued: “After finishing high school, which in itself was a success for J. A. because it was a mainstream school, we were accepted as immigrants to Canada. We found out that J. A. still needed two years of education before he could be accepted to University in Canada. So we stayed two more years in Manila, where J. A. completed the certificate program at St. Scholastica’s College. Why St. Scholastica’s? Well, having been educated by nuns myself (at Maryknoll now Miriam College), I felt that an environment run by nuns would be good for him. ”

Like J. A., I am an immigrant–to the U. S.–and as a member of the diaspora, I’ve written a book to cope with the changes. I have my family that keeps me grounded. For J. A., who not only faces the challenges that many immigrants face like homesickness, but also the challenges of autism, it is his art that helps him cope.

“Moving away from the Philippines must have been a big change for all of you and J. A. especially, ” I told Marie Zelie. I know that with his autism, he needs routine and structure. I asked her how J. A. stays connected with the Philippines. She said: “Skype, Facetime, email… J. A. keeps in touch with friends and family in Manila on a regular basis. Also, we make sure we go back to the Philippines once a year. Here in Canada, his comfort foods are Goldilocks pancit palabok (noodles), veggie lumpia (egg roll), lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly), barbecue, and also pan de sal (salt-bun). He likes eating in the Filipino restaurants we find here. His routine is pretty set here; he paints at his studio, he goes swimming, practices tae kwon do and he even takes the bus! ”

One of the artist's newer works, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 2013 (Photo by Vincent Tan)

I could feel my aunt’s pride as she talked about her son. I’ve watched it from the sidelines, of course, and every once in a while J. A. would chat with me on Skype and tell me what he was doing. More of the same, he’d say. Painting all day, swimming, tae kwon do. And then I’d see his latest work, and that’s when I can truly see what he’s feeling–because it is through his art that he expresses himself best; it is through his paintings that his mind can truly be free.

Without a doubt, J.A. Tan has come a long way. Every day is a victory as he triumphs over the challenges of being a person with autism. Not only does he serve as an inspiration to children on the autism spectrum and budding artists, but to Filipinos all over the world too.

We laughed. I wasn’t educated by nuns myself but I did go to a Jesuit-run university, so I know what she meant.

“As for Emily Carr University, we were told it was the best school for the arts in Vancouver where we decided to reside. We didn't make a mistake in this choice as the support the university gave him helped him grow his talent and his person. Until now, some of his teachers still follow what happens to him... they attend the shows he has here in Vancouver and visit his studio. ”

In this interview with J. A. Tan’s mentor, Landon McKenzie, an artist and Associate Dean at Emily Carr UNIVERSITY OF ART AND DESIGN, talks about J. A. on the news program “Balitang Vancouver."


Marcie Taylor is a writer, photographer and social media strategist based in Orange County, CA. She is the author of the book, Missing Mangoes: For Filipinos and Those Who Love Us. Connect with her on Twitter @suburbanmama, Facebook and her site.