Artist, animal-lover, behavioural therapist, volunteer, and an all-round do-gooder: where does one start when unpacking the formidable woman that is Melissa Tan Ai May?
Tan, who holds a degree in psychology, spends her regular workday teaching children with autism. “I’ve been a teacher for over 25 years now,” she shared.
And on her days off, the vivacious 44-year-old spends her hours volunteering for various causes. For example, a few years ago, she began giving her time to a local animal shelter.
“I was the pooper-scooper,” the cheerful Tan joked.
It was also around this time when the animal-lover first picked up art as a hobby.
“In 2012, out of boredom, I decided to try painting,” Tan said. “I painted a little dog and, like many others would, I posted my completed work online.”
“That picture got more ‘likes’ than I’d expected!” she recalled gleefully.
Tan admitted that back then, she didn’t exactly have high expectations of her hobby. “But at one point,” she said, “I started donating my very unpolished, beginner artwork to the shelter I volunteer at so they could sell it and raise funds.”
To her pleasant surprise, the response her art received was overwhelming. “All the paintings sold out!” she recalled.
Soon after, requests for her artwork came flooding in.
“Pet owners wanted me to create one-of-a-kind pieces of their beloved fur-kids,” she explained. “So I kept drawing and painting.”
She hasn’t stopped drawing and painting ever since.
Success hasn’t and won’t change who she is inside
A firm believer of doing good whenever she can, the humble Tan endeavours to keep using her skills to better the community around her. And although she holds a full-time job and is often busy, Tan still makes it a point to help others.
These days, she designs for non-profit organisations so they can print and sell merchandise, participates in fund-raisers by selling her work and donating the proceeds to charity, and even runs art workshops with various VWOs (Voluntary Welfare Organisation).
She explained: “I’m an art mentor with Club Rainbow, which provides compassionate services to chronically ill children and their families. I work with a 15-year-old boy with autism. I believe that everyone should have access to art as long as they are willing to learn!”
Finally, Tan said: “And no matter what I earn, there’s always a portion reserved for charity. I’ve pledged to use my art as a tool for good.”
Her plate may be full, but Tan, who has experienced countless heartwarming moments since pursuing her hobby, is more than motivated to continue helping as many people as she can through her art.
She grinned: “From seeing my students smile when doing art, to receiving little messages of thanks from pet owners, to having strangers tell me they’ve been inspired to do good with their own skills, meeting kind, wonderful people who give their time and resources generously, befriending many of my clients – these are a few of the highlights of my art career so far.”
She hopes to give a voice to the voiceless
Tan considers animals, such as her two cats and one dog, her muses – even though they spend much of the day sleeping. Tan laughed: “Fat cats are featured in many of my paintings although my own feline, Ellie, is far from being overweight!”
She added: “I’ve also been rescuing animals off the street since I was young. I was even unexpectedly captured on a dashcam last year, madly running across the road to rescue a pigeon – the video ended up on Mothership and Singapore Reckless drivers!”
On a more serious note, she said: “It’s really these animals that are so often overlooked that make me want to be a voice for them.”
Tan’s latest work? A painted Singa the Courtesy Lion. It is one of 200 unique Singas that feature in a collaboration between Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) and Raffles City Shopping Centre called Arts in the City: We Love SINGApore. The figurines are painted by prominent Singaporeans such as President Halimah Yacob, local artists such as Tan, and celebrities such as Fann Wong.
The exhibition is part of Singapore’s 54th birthday celebrations as well as the Singapore Bicentennial this year.
Speaking to TimeOut Singapore at the launch of the exhibition, President Halimah Yacob said: “I like the fact that we’re using our Singa. This is something we grew up with. Since 1982, the Courtesy Lion has been associated with being kind. It evokes the image of kindness and strongly encourages us to be a kind and caring society.”
About her own unique Singa, Tan said: “As kindness is a value that is very important to me, it was an honor to participate in a campaign that resonates with me. Since I’m such a huge animal lover, I painted animals all over the Singa lion, even less ‘lovable’ ones such as snakes, because every living thing, no matter their shape, size or colour, deserves kindness and respect.”
Tan’s Singa has since been adopted, and she hopes that the special person who adopted it will love it just as much as she does.
Since the start of the exhibition in early August, all Singa figurines have been adopted by members of the public at $88 each. All proceeds go towards the President’s Challenge.
She hopes her art will continue to push people to be kinder
Although art continues to take up a sizable chunk of her time, Tan is happy.
“Knowing that my art makes people smile, pushes me to continue helping others through art,” she said. “Also, I hope that the way I use my art will make someone else’s life just a little better.”
Tan has just one wish for her fellow Singaporeans: “Be more aware of the people around you, especially the ‘unseen’ people. You may not know it, but even a smile or a ‘thank you’ lets them know that they are appreciated.”
Arts in the City: We Love SINGApore is an ongoing exhibition at Raffles City Singapore, Level 1, 252 North Bridge Road. The exhibition is open to the public and available for viewing till Aug 28.