Pursuit of Happiness: Special needs educator and artist Brian Sze
The start of 2018 ushers in new hopes and ambitions. Even so, let’s not forget that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. theDesk continues to unravel inspiring stories of giving back, in conjunction with of our ongoing Pursuit of Happiness Art Exhibition.
Outstanding Arts Teacher by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) awardee Brian Sze has dedicated himself to special needs children and arts for more than a decade. Full of heart and passion, Brian has made a name for himself as a painter and author-illustrator, together with his iconic illustrated companion, Mr.baby.
You’ve been a special needs educator for the past 15 years. What drew you to this career choice?
I enjoy interacting with children. Special needs children are like any other children; they are innocent souls who laugh when happy, throw tantrums when sad.
What’s more, they wear their emotions on their sleeves and never hide how they feel. Be it happy or sad, I found the simple and direct form of communication endearing.
Besides, I have to be a realist with the high cost of living here in Hong Kong. A stable career is essential to support my passion for the arts. But I must say that I’m lucky I get to teach what I love, together with my love for children — it’s the best of both worlds.
What are the challenges and fulfilment teaching special needs children?
Patience is key; sometimes, we simply can’t see progress through the naked eye.
These children need more time with learning, hence there’s a need for repetition in teaching. In my first two years, I was rather dejected as my students’ progress weren’t visible to me.
My whole perspective changed when I saw my first batch of students graduate. One student struggled to adjust to regular education, thus returning to our school to further her education. Even so, she personal expressed her gratitude to us, teachers, as she felt she has grown and matured through our guidance. It moved us all to tears.
At that moment, it hit me that even growth may not be visible on the surface. Regardless of the speed, there is still maturity and change in them. We got to be optimistic, patient and never lose hope in our students.
As much as I am grooming my students through this journey, the truth is, I’m unravelling new knowledge that I would’ve never known on my own.
What made you pursue art on a larger scale?
In primary school, my class monitor flaunted my drawing in front of the whole class and made a prediction that I would be a successful artist one day. That very moment has been deeply embedded in my memory.
Art teachers throughout my youth were pivotal in encouraging me to be where I am today. Not only was I taught the techniques but I also learnt new perspectives and the openness to express and experiment.
What are your thoughts on Hong Kong’s art scene?
Art thrives in this city for capitalism and investment. Yet the sustainability of art as a career is very hard. There are talents and opportunities here. I’m grateful that there are local galleries who support us through their platforms.
Yet, not enough support comes from the public and the government. I truly believe it all begins with education and emphasis on where the value of art is placed in society.
The art scene flourishes in other countries because they value its history. Art is deemed as a tool for nurturing imagination and creation to progress society.
Hong Kong emphasises too much on economic and commercial value, diminishing goals beyond numbers. There’s a need to develop and groom the creative sector.
When I teach, I emphasise the importance of appreciating a piece of art. Beyond appearance, I want my students to understand the craftsmanship that goes behind the work and the influences behind its conception.
Mr.baby, your iconic bunny, is a recurring motif throughout your artwork. Can you share more about what he means to you?
Many of my friends used to joke that I look like a bunny when I smiled. Hence, Mr.baby first came about as a fun sketch outline. Back in 2000, I lost my beloved sister to a tragic accident.
It took a major toll on me. Art was used for channelling my grief; drawing Mr.baby became a form of solace as I started creating more abstract and darker works.
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I began to ponder deeper into what a bunny represents. A bunny’s tame adorable appearance is often associated with a positive cheerful figure. I wanted to bring out a multi-dimensional character that had parallels to a human’s emotion. He is connected to the highs and lows of my own personal journey.
The reason why he’s called “Mr.baby” is to convey the complexity of one’s growth and maturity. “Mister” represented the phase of adulthood, while “baby” is the child inside all of us.
You’ve participated Tree of Life’s charity outreach before the exhibition. Can you share more about your experiences?
I got to know about it through the co-organiser Eugene from Genceylee Gallery. It came perfectly at a time where I became more conscious in current socio-political affairs. Before this, I collaborated with the non-profit global eye health organisation Orbis International, where Mr.baby was a mascot.
Before Tree of Life, aside from the families of students I teach, I was unfamiliar with other groups of less fortunate in Hong Kong. I attended both the banquet and the clothing donation drive at the charity centre. It was a refreshing sight to hear people share so honestly about their past mistakes and hardships.
I commend the team and volunteers at Tree of Life for giving their time and effort graciously. The less fortunate, be it the homeless, low income or domestic helpers, came to the centre and were all genuinely grateful.
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An exchange with a lady who recently got out of prison struck me the most. She shared how rough it has been returning to society as people continued to shun and ostracize her, even by ordinary shop attendants when she goes to buy things.
During a small prayer, she shed tears thanking the volunteers for offering kindness and warmth to her. These recent experiences have impacted me in the way I want to approach my art in future.
Tell us more about the motivation behind your commissioned work for the exhibition.
Interacting with the less fortunate motivated me to conceptualise a vivid imaginary version of a home in the form of a floating house amongst the clouds.
To most, the definition of home is to have your family with you.
Regardless of their situation, many of the Tree of Life beneficiaries were abandoned and left to fend for themselves. All they hope for is to be accepted back and be loved.
Mr.baby and the balloons are like happy and hopeful free spirits, and the house is a symbol of belonging. I want to convey to everyone the possibility of transporting yourself to a place where you desire to be loved.
What: The Pursuit of Happiness Art Exhibition
Where: theDesk, G/F Queen’s Road West, Sai Ying Pun
When: Until 15th February 2018 | Monday – Friday, 9 am – 6 pm
Transport: HKU Station, Island Line, Exit B2
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