Guan Xiaolei – Freedom Through Art

You and Me: Guan Xiaolei's art is a pathway for children with special needs to communicate with the world. Guan stands in the middle of several students working at tables.

Although many people come and go from the Guangzhou Youth Club on weekends, there is something catching everyone’s attention: a very special exhibition. At the end of one its corridors, hangs a collection of vivid paintings showcased against a backdrop of Time magazine covers.

Each canvas exudes unfettered creativity. When sunlight lands on the paintings, various shades of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and indigo appear radiant. Called “You and Me: We are the Generation that Represents the Present,” the collection of paintings are by young artists who happen to be children with special needs. Visitors stop and stare, deeply moved by this quiet ensemble of work.

In the eyes of many, these youngsters may seem out of tune with the outside world, but in the eyes of their teacher and mentor Guan Xiaolei, they are true artists. Although they may not necessarily be good with words, their hearts are filled with color and a vibrancy that is seamlessly expressed in their brilliant paintings.

The Priceless Benefits of Art

Every Tuesday through Friday, dozens of art students stream into Guangzhou Youth Club’s large art studio. Classes are lively as students express themselves and their creativity in a straightforward fashion. They are expressive, for when they draw they smile; some even dance as they wield a pencil or brush. The teachers, all graduates from fine art universities, never teach techniques, but rather guide the children to do whatever they want with their canvases. They’re there for support only.

You won’t see parents waiting outside for their children either, for many of the students like their independence. They prefer to take the subway on their own to and from school. Although Guan Xiaolei admits not all children with intellectual disabilities are necessarily artists, she is grateful for the many benefits art brings into their lives. “Art is a language,” she says. “It communicates the artist’s unspeakable inner world and has an art therapy effect.”

In the beginning, the students wouldn’t always paint or even sit still. When Wei Yizhe, who has autism, first arrived a few years ago, he picked up the paint and squirted it into his mouth; he cried during every class. To help him adapt, his mother accompanied him the first year and insisted he continue painting. Today he no longer cries and loves art, especially painting. He thinks it’s fun and sometimes paints for hours. It is a miracle, considering he could barely stand still for two minutes when he first arrived. Previously, few people believed children with special needs could draw or paint.

An Art Teacher Finds Her Calling

In 1984, Guan Xiaolei graduated from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and became an art teacher at the youth club. That year, an eight-year-old boy named Chen Yuan Pu also came to the youth club to study painting. The little boy was thin, naggy and silly, but also cute, and he left a deep impression on the young teacher. Later, she learned that Yuan Pu was a child with special needs.

At that time, the youth club didn’t have many spots open and students had to pass an entrance exam. Yuan Pu took the test multiple times, but always failed to pass—he tested a zero on math, and his paintings simply did not follow the given topic. But Guan Xiaolei found Yuan Pu to have a striking talent for painting. He is imaginative, with a strong spatial ability that enables him to draw three dimensional scenes. His artwork pulls the viewer into a fantasy world. In this way, when the youth club began implementing proper and elite education, Yuan Pu became one of Guan Xiaolei’s first “special” students, but also the first in the history of the youth club to be accepted as a child with special needs.

To allow Yuan Pu to develop his natural aptitudes and not be bound by traditional teaching methods, Guan Xiaolei never gave him too many restrictions, nor interfered much. In this way, the boy, who had one lesson per week, was happy to paint and always eager to do more.

At age 21, Yuan Pu, with the youth club and Guan Xiaolei’s help, published his own art album called No Sound But Happiness, a title borrowed from Liao Bingxiong, a famous painter. After that, Yuan Pu became the club’s first art teacher with special needs.

Yuan Pu’s experience inspired Guan Xiaolei, who thought, “If these children were given more space and encouragement, they would have a different life.” In 1998, along with the children’s juvenile art school vice president, the teacher set up China’s first experimental art class for children with special needs. That year, 20 children, ages five to 13, some with cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome and other conditions were recruited to participate. The popularity of the class surpassed everyone’s imagination, for parents would line up outside overnight to secure a spot for their child.

Students on a shiny wooden studio floor practice stretching moves. Right Students performing on stage full of spotlights.By 2006, the special education classes were upgraded and became known as the Special Children’s Education Center. In addition to the original art classes taught, they added courses in music, drama, dance, comprehensive art, art therapy and physical development. In 2010, the City Welfare Lottery Chest subsidy decided to give out more that 2000 free scholarships and spaces annually to children with special needs.

The Biggest Hurdle? No Examples.

The youth club currently offers more than 60 arts education courses for children with special needs as well as for children who are hospitalized, orphaned or economically disadvantaged. But there remains another difficult issue: the community tends not to understand people with disabilities, so they do not accept them as welcomed members of society.

So to promote greater social awareness, Guan Xiaolei and her partners focused increasingly on

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social welfare projects and finding public spaces to show off the children’s impressive artwork to the public. Over the last seven years, they’ve held a variety of art exhibitions and concerts showcasing the children’s artistic achievements. For example, in 2014, 100 sculptures and large-scale paintings told the stories of 100 young artists. In 2015, another exhibit entitled “Little Forest for You and Me” showcased the work of artists with autism. And in 2016, “Mozart’s Echo” was another popular public exhibition and concert held in the Guangzhou Grand Theater.

Access to arts education for children with special needs and the establishment of specialized institutions are unique in China. The education system these children go through is not the same as that of the national education system. Fellow teachers come to learn their methods and when they do, Guan Xiaolei does not hold back. As she explains, “When we share, we can change a city.” When a reporter asked her what were the greatest difficulties she’d encountered over the years, Guan Xiaolei blurted out: ”There are no examples!”

During the Asian Paralympic Games, an art exhibition by children with special needs called “We are Coming” was held in the Guangdong Provincial Museum. Initially, the museum considered the children’s artwork a “hindrance” and were concerned children with special needs would disrupt the order and pose a security risk. But eventually, Guan Xiaolei persuaded them. What the museum did not expect was how moved people were by the artwork. For later museum exhibitions, admission was free and the artwork was displayed in the largest spaces.

Last year, the troupe went abroad for the first time to showcase their art in the US and Canada. The venues, exhibitions, choreography, lighting and even drawing back the curtains were all done by the staff, which kept them busy. As one staff member later commented, “You cannot do this work without feeling idealistic.”

Right now, Guan Xiaolei is focused on a new project: a primary school that is offering classes to children with special needs. The first experimental school is in the Tianhe District, with more than 20 students enrolled. The curriculum is based on a wide range of art, such as painting, music and drama. In one classroom, the proportion of children with special needs and non-special needs is 1:1. The children are learning to play and accept one another.

There is no such thing as children with special needs in art.

In 2013, Guan Xiaolei met with Taiwanese Professor Wu Shu-mei, who a proponent of fusion education—a practice that supports combining children with and without special needs in the same classroom. When Guan Xiaolei saw a video of this concept in practice, she came up with a bold new idea. In 2014, she founded the Rainbow After the Storm Fusion Art Troupe in an effort to bring together students with and without special needs into one classroom.

Initially, there was resistance. Not all of the parents were on board with the concept of a combined classroom. As one complained to Guan Xiaolei’s face: “It cannot be allowed because the bad pupils will lead the good ones astray and make them bad too.” But Xiaolei kept repeating Professor Wu’s 20 years of experience with these classes in order to reassure the parents.

Research shows that fusion classes benefit children with special needs and non-special needs; those with special needs find jobs and become independent adults while the other students go on to university. More importantly, each student learns to accept people who are different from themselves. In the end, 24 non-special needs children remained enrolled in the combined classroom.

Fusion classes, however, are not easy to start. At first, the children differentiated themselves from the children with special needs. If a child could not touch the kettle, they would endure and not drink any water all day long; sometimes, the children with autism would scream and make exaggerated actions, which frightened some of the other children, who would then hide. Whenever some of the students saw another student in a wheelchair, they would automatically turn around and walk away.

When people advised her “to just separate them,” she refused and knew she’d feel bitter if she gave up too soon. She wanted to tell the children that people around the world are different, just as one person may have short hair and another long hair. In dance classes, she would make the children with special needs pair up with the non-special needs children and ask them to work as partners, to cooperate together. But when the children used body language to express, exchange, or embrace one another, the once obvious boundaries between them gradually began to blur.

The non-special needs students were entrusted with the task of being the “small secretary.” When the student with special needs needed help, the teacher called out “little secretary,” and the students would automatically get up to help a child who was blind to stand up or to help to push a classmate in a wheelchair. They became more and more understanding. A year later, when they all performed, the children came onto the stage holding hands. From the sounds of their singing, no one could tell who had special needs and who didn’t. Guan Xiaolei was moved to tears.

To their teacher, these are the fruits of her labors. To her, children with autism are like stars; children with Down’s syndrome are honey; children who are visually impaired are dark elves; children who are hearing impaired are quiet angels, and children with cerebral palsy are angels with wings. One after another small geniuses are discovered: pianist Wei Yizhe’s skills are amazing, according to Xinghai Conservatory of Music Professor Peng Xiaobo, Prince Ann, known as Dark Prince, sounds as beautiful as nature, and Liu Lingxin is a dancing angel in a wheelchair. People are no longer ashamed to bring these children out of hiding. The parents started to work together and established what is known as the “mother choir,” a group of mom’s who proudly take the children to exhibitions, concerts, and social events.

In 1993, Guan Xiaolei’s daughter was born premature and suffered severe asphyxia and an intracranial hemorrhage. The tiny baby didn’t even utter a cry. A friend who was a pediatric nurse predicted pessimistically that Xiaolei’s daughter would be lucky if she only has to use an IV drip in the future. In the days of coming and going to the hospital, Xiaolei met many parents of special needs children who had similar experiences. She recalls, “their tired, haggard, teary eyes are deeply engraved in my mind.”

With weekly trips to the hospital plus the monthly doctor’s appointments, Guan Xiaolei said, “I, like all desperate mothers, held on to my child, wiping away tears and praying to God: If my daughter can get better, I will make the greatest possible effort to help others.” And that she’s done. Her daughter recovered by the age of four and recently returned from a visit to the United States.

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by Feng Huan

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine


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