Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Kemlyn Tan Bappe, Paper Batik Artist, Tells Her Story





I grew up in Singapore and am most at ease when penning my ideas with a brush. At the age of 13, I began oil painting and identified myself as painter. I went to high school in Hong Kong and Singapore. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art from Baylor University, Waco, Texas, a Master of Divinity in Theology from Southwestern Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, and a Master of Arts in Special Education from the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa. I currently reside in Phoenix, Arizona with my husband and three children. I am of Peranakan* descent.

What is Paper Batik?

The Peranakans use batik in their traditional clothing and linens. Batik is a traditional process of using resist and dyes on fabric. 


Ambient Moons, Paper Batik


As a contemporary Peranakan artist, I apply these traditional fiber techniques to paper. I was first introduced to this process by Dr. Janet Hart Heinicke, an artist and educator. This media allows me to meander surfaces with intricate lines illuminated with vibrant colors that can come only from silk dyes. I love being an artist because I am not hindered by my print disability.


Embracing Autumn, Paper Batik


Living with Dyslexia

About ten years ago, I was struggling to read an instruction manual in Singapore. Vince Devadason, a remedial reading specialist asked me if I had trouble reading. After an in-depth conversation, he conducted a few tests and that was how I was finally identified as an adult living with dyslexia.


Lotus Pond, Paper Batik


When I was an elementary student, I thought everyone struggled with seeing the words on a page. My words and letters loved to dance. They sometimes exchanged positions. Other times, they would disappear completely. There were times they hopped from left side of the page to right and then suicide-slid down the cliff of words. My inability to control these dancers on print made it difficult to succeed academically. I was bestowed many titles in school including "stupid," "lazy," "retarded," and "rebel." After a while, this recording embedded, and I began to wonder if the labels were true. I began to shy away from academics and invested my energies into sports and the arts.


It was no wonder that I became an art major and a professional artist and it was no surprise that being a teacher never made it on my list of career preferences. So, it is ironic that I just completed my Masters degree in Special Education.


Phoenix Rising, Acrylic


After my official diagnosis with dyslexia (words and letters), dyscalculia (numbers), and cognitive disorder (a fancy term to describe the fact that my intellect is significantly higher than my ability to test academically), I continued to work as a teaching artist in schools around Iowa and nationally without broadcasting my disability. However things changed. In one classroom, I observed that a student was struggling with reading. I asked him if the font size or font might be difficult to read. He said that he felt tired and his eyes hurt when he read. I zipped over to the computer, changed the font to a non-serif font (Arial) and printed the instructions off. He said that he could read it. I thought he would be grateful. Instead, he became irate. "How did you know what to do?" 


"Er, it's because I live with dyslexia?"


"Ms. Bappe, I have dyslexia, too. You're the first adult that I know that has this. Why don't adults talk about stuff like this?" I didn't have a good answer. After a long reflection, I decided to come out about my learning disability, and thus I began my journey with VSA, an organization for arts and disabilities. In 2009-10 I was a recipient of the VSA National Teaching Artist Fellowship and had the opportunity to teach at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Through VSA and the wonderful people I have met, I have learned to proclaim: "Don't fixate on what I can't do. Celebrate what I can do!" I became a VSA Arts and Inclusion Presenter and had opportunities to teach about creating inclusive classrooms using the arts. I loved working with students like me with learning disabilities, and that led me to go back to school and pursue Special Education at the University of Iowa. 


I now speak openly about my challenges and strategies in the classroom. I am a teaching artist. I use arts integration strategies with students living with learning disabilities in Phoenix, Arizona and continue to model the life of a professional artist.


Guardian Dragon, Paper Batik


Artist Statement

Each piece of artwork describes a lesson or hope that I embrace.

Phoenix Rising encapsulates the ascent from brokenness to healing.
Ambient Moons taught me that every creature is beautiful when it finds its context.

Guardian Dragon is a symbol of protection in Chinese lore. Dragons to represent prayers I have for those in our community who face suffering.

Lotus Pond is a motif in many Asian cultures that represents the return of spring and renewal.

Embracing Autumn is a question inspired by fall leaves. How will we face the challenge of change and transition in our lives?


To see more of Kem’s work and connect with her socially, please see the following links:


This is Week 25 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Kem’s post today!


Background Info on Peranakan culture:

*Signs of Peranakan culture can be found as early as the 14th century. "The Peranakan Chinese are descendants of Chinese traders who settled in Malacca and around the coastal areas of Java and Sumatra. In the 19th century, the Peranakan Chinese, drawn by commerce, migrated to the bustling ports of Penang and Singapore ("Who are the Peranakans, peranakanmuseum.sg.)."