First published on 19 Sep 2011. Updated on 19 Sep 2011.
Deep in the eye of his own creative hurricane, Ping Lian Yeak hums softly to himself as rapid squiggles and instinctive daubs of coloured paint on blank paper quickly become astonishing art.
Lost in his own world? Or hurtling headlong into self-discovery? Ping’s private odyssey is all the more bafling and wondrous for his being a prodigious savant, one of only a dozen in the world today and 100 known cases this century.
"The fine line between profound talents and profound disability is a very thin one," says Dr Darold Treffert, an expert in the rare, spectacular condition. “The prodigious savant defies limits in search of an immense potential.”
Ping was always different. Growing up in Kuala Lumpur with two older sisters, he was a hyperactive toddler averse to sleep or affection. At the age of three he was still unable to speak and at four was officially diagnosed as autistic.
Autistic children struggle with communication and social interaction. Ping’s restless energy could only be stilled by scenery or pretty pictures. When he failed to cope at school, his mother Sarah quit her high-powered job to home-school him.
In the beginning Ping’s motor skills were so poor he couldn’t hold a pencil. But slowly he grew stronger and began tracing and colouring, Sarah guiding his hand stroke by stroke.
Repetition led to obsession. At eight, Ping’s creativity accelerated so fast Sarah enlisted three different artists to teach and harness his talent. Painting had opened the gateway to expression.
Ping’s work captivated all who saw it. While musical genius is common in autistic savants, phenomenal art ability is rare. Ping was quickly hailed a prodigious savant, that rarest of souls who operates at genius level from an island of brilliance in contrast to his societal limitations.
Documentary crews, art galleries and medical experts from around the world flocked to watch Ping work and acclaim his gift. Boy wonder him- self drew on, utterly oblivious to the fuss.
Created at breakneck speed in charcoal, acrylic, watercolours, ink and oil pastels, Ping’s paintings were soon exhibited far and wide. But to Sarah, Ping’s true epiphany came when he was 11 and his father died suddenly, followed by his grandmother’s death the year following.
“Ping came to me and said: ‘I miss Daddy, I miss Grandma,’” recalls Sarah. “For the first time he understood the meaning of ‘love’ and ‘miss’ and communicated it. Then he sat down and, with special emotion, painted a beautiful big rooster with a chick under its wing.”
The widowed Sarah moved her own brood to Sydney in 2006, installing Ping in Vern Barnett School for Autism in Forestville and setting up home in Chatswood. Ping’s spark has flamed afresh in this city of blue skies, strange animals and shimmering beauty and his studio today is near his favourite subject: the Opera House.
Mum’s close but Ping’s hand is his guide now. And with Sydney as a canvas, the future’s bright.
Meet Ping Lian Yeak and watch him work at the Rocks Pop-Up Project, 47 George St, Wed–Fri 3.30–6pm.