Drawing stories in silence
Disability did not stop Ziyue from pursuing what she loves.
Growing up was tough for Ziyue Chen.
The 30-year-old illustrator was born deaf, and often felt left out among her friends. However, she did not let her disability stand in the way of pursuing her dreams.
“When I was little, my parents told me that I liked to draw on the walls,” she laughed.
Art slowly became sacred to her, and she used it as a form of escape from a world she didn’t understand. Today, Ziyue owns Little A, a company where she teaches art to kids, while freelancing in illustration.
It was a challenging journey for her. When she was 9, Ziyue was transferred from Canossian School for the Hearing Impaired (now renamed Canossian School) into St Anthony’s Canossian Primary School. Her mother wanted Ziyue to join a mainstream school, so she could fit into society despite her disability.
After switching schools, Ziyue found it difficult to cope in her new school. She often felt lonely, especially during recess time in school.
“I had such a culture shock. When I talked, they couldn’t understand me. They would laugh at my funny words, because I couldn’t pronounce properly. That was horrible. I felt left out because of the communication barrier,” she recalled.
“My mum said, ‘No, my daughter must know how to talk!’, so she used her own ways to help me to vocalise and lip read. She made me do all these things and it was very tiring but it was for my own good. She is really awesome,” said Ziyue.
The bubbly artist added: “I know that I have to be optimistic; I keep telling myself that ‘I can because I think can’. This is the quote I always tell myself.”
Ziyue eventually earned her place in a digital media design course in Nanyang Polytechnic, a course she chose as it reminded her of the Disney cartoons she indulged in as a child.
Upon graduation, she kicked off her career as an animator for Norwegian artist Oistein Kristiansen in local TV programme Doodle Champs. After spending a year there, she freelanced for another 12 months.
The first two years of her career were challenging, as she was worried about people not understanding her speech. “I didn’t know if I would be able to communicate with clients, whether they would be able to understand me,” she said.
Soon, she started missing the joy of creating drawings on paper. After much encouragement from her brother, Chin Wee Min, a lecturer at the Institute of Technical Education, Ziyue sent her applications for an illustration course at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, and was accepted.
However, she was worried about the lack of funds because her family wasn’t well-off. Her brother then persuaded her to apply for scholarships.
Although the interviews were intimidating, she was offered a scholarship from the Media Development Authority (MDA), and was given one month to pack and fly to the United States alone.
Ziyue recalled: “It was another culture shock. Under the American with Disabilities Act‘s law in US, I was provided an interpreter for free, and it really helped a lot. For the first time in my life, I really understood what was going on [in lectures].”
During her five-year stint in the US, there were moments where Ziyue felt homesick. She worked on a drawing inspired by her childhood memories, and used Photoshop to complete her artwork digitally.
Titled ‘Memories’, Ziyue depicted the moments her mother travelled from Bukit Batok to Simei in the crowded train every day to fetch her from school.
The artwork secured her a place in a big conference, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, in New York. She later met new people like creative director Charles Hively, who offered her part-time work as a show coordinator/graphic artist at his studio for Creative Quarterly Journal and 3×3 Magazine. This was a great leap out of the once-shy artist’s comfort zone.
She also met other great people like Chris Buzelli, a professional illustrator she looked up to, and his art director wife, SooJin Buzelli.
So, what has she learnt through her journey of overcoming challenges?
“It’s possible to make your dreams come true, if you continue to have faith in yourself. Faith takes you to places. Sometimes, you think it’s impossible, but if you change your mind’s perception, it’s possible. Never stop dreaming, because it gives you hope,” said Ziyue.