S'pore student, 15, goes from community centre art classes to selling S$6,500 painting for charity

J’den Teo EnKai believes that everyone can do their part in whatever ways they can. For him, doing and selling his paintings is a small act that can make a big difference.

Alfie Kwa | October 24, 2021, 09:36 AM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates: https://t.me/mothershipsg

Last week, I hopped onto a Zoom call with J’den Teo EnKai. Aside from being a typical 15-year-old who had just completed his secondary three end-year examinations and is preparing for his O-level Chinese paper in November, Teo is also an artist who runs TAD Charity.

Throughout our conversation, there were a couple of questions that took Teo a second or two to ponder.

But when I asked how he’s been able to do all this charitable work at such a young age, his answer was immediate and full of conviction:

“Charity is not dictated by your life circumstances that you are subjected to. Anybody, whether you are poor or rich, young or old, can contribute to charity in whatever small ways you can.”

Over the past three years, Teo has raised tens of thousands of dollars to help children and youth in need through the sale of his paintings.

And his journey started with a trip to Cambodia.

Cambodia trip opened his eyes to poverty around the world

For as long as Teo can remember, he has been told of children elsewhere in the world who don’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear.

But it was not until his parents took him on a mission trip to Cambodia in 2012– to help charities deliver essentials to towns mired in poverty – that Teo came face to face with poverty in the flesh.

“They wanted to expose us to what it’s like there,” he said, recalling walking down the streets of the town he visited.

“I saw this 5-year-old boy holding his younger sister selling corn on the street. The boy was running around with no shoes and a pair of torn shorts, making money to support his family.”

The image of the children with dirt all over their hands and face, wearing torn-up clothes and forced to sell items on the street to make a living was ingrained in his mind.

Teo was struck by the contrast between what he saw, and his somewhat cushy life in Singapore.

He kept thinking:

How can I help? What can I do?

6-year-old Teo was, however, limited by not only age but money.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about his experience on the trip, and began to have a strong desire to help those in need.

His mind went on and on about ways to help the less fortunate, and he often interrupted family dinners to brainstorm ideas.

Finally, in 2017, he came up with the idea to bring his passion for helping others together with his hobby, art, and launched TAD Charity to raise funds by selling his very own art pieces and donating the proceeds to children-centric charities.

Teo also uses this platform to encourage more young people to participate in charity work.

Only participated in community centre art classes

Teo working on one of his paintings at home. Image via TAD Charity/FB.

Teo has now held two art exhibitions since he began TAD Charity, with each one featuring around 25 pieces.

Each art piece was priced between S$400 and S$6,500.

So it came as quite a surprise to learn that Teo does not have much training in art.

He only had community centre art classes during his December holiday break in 2014 which helped him develop some fundamental painting skills.

Art classes were a reward from his parents after he did well in his Primary Two end-of-year examinations.

However, art classes at an art school or studio were way out of budget for the middle-income family, so the Teos settled for classes at the community centre.

This didn't matter to Teo, however.

"I was just having fun and doing what I like to do and I am glad I was given the opportunity to learn at the community centre near my home."

Since then, Teo took it upon himself to practise and improve his skills along the way. It is, after all, something that he is very passionate about.

He began working with acrylic paint, before moving to other mediums like oils, watercolour, and candle smoke.

“I practised a lot,” he added.

He also sought advice about his paintings from people around him, including an art teacher who taught him about various painting mediums.

Their comments and feedback — what they liked about the work, what they didn’t like, and what stood out to them — would be duly incorporated into his next painting.

Art jam workshops were another avenue for him to pick up a skill or two.

But beyond the artistic strokes of his brush, each piece he’s done conveys a meaningful message.

“For every piece that I have done, I tend to do a short write-up for it… It used to be based on things I see around me, but now, I usually think of some philosophical ideas I have about charity.”

Here are some of the pieces he’s done, along with his write-ups:

Teo: "Many times in life, true strength comes not from external factors, but rather from one’s inherent self. In the most difficult of times, when met with insurmountable darkness, if we can just cling to the last vestiges of hope and keep forging ahead, like a horse, charging ever onward, one will emerge from this darkness into the light."

Teo: "Home to me is in how each of us, divided by identity, yet united by purpose, imperfect yet perfect. It is home to me. It is in how each and every identity is respected and preserved throughout time, intertwined with the countless cultures and believes that make up our society."

Teo: "It is my belief that the absence of excellence is not in the lacking of one’s ability, nor one’s etude, but rather, the lack of one’s attitude and perception. Throughout our lives, past many experiences, past many achievements, how many of us actually question the boundaries of what we can achieve. How many of us actually question, what could have been done, instead of asking, what could not have been done. Very few. It’s really, this level of mental control, this state of mental awareness, to put aside all setbacks, to cast aside all self-doubts, and achieve that what needs to be done, that needs to be inculcated into us. We have to learn, not to let setbacks pull us back, but rather, transcend them. We have to arm them like battle shields for the fight, harness these like the horses before the rippling winds and ride them, like the kings of old, to our victories. Crack open that layer of self-questioning, cast aside all doubts, and all that is before us would be our transcendence before all others."

Teo: "Grit. The virtue that keeps us going. It provides those who are strong hearted the needed strength and the will to keep going. It allows man to do miraculous feats. When all seems to be lost, it is there, in our body, mind, and soul, telling us to keep going, to push forward, even when the body has gone way past its limits, on the verge of shattering. It is there when the morale is low, giving it the will to succeed. For with it, no one can tell you, anything, ANYTHING that will hinder your progress. With it, fires suddenly don’t seem so searing, the depths of the sea don’t seem so deep, nor are the heights of the mountains that tower anymore. You are invincible with it. That was what I told myself before I ran…"

Teo: "Humility is the virtue of being able to accept that though, in our theorem, each and everyone are our flowers among themselves, we still have much to descry from others. Humility should be the virtue we all strive to attain, for the amelioration of ourselves."

"With an exhibition, we felt it would better serve our purpose to promote the TAD Charity's idea and rally philanthropy and volunteerism with something tangible."

Curating an exhibition

Having spoken to others who curated exhibitions before, Teo and his family decided that it was the best way to display his work.

Teo recalls the challenge of curating an entire exhibition for the first time.

What began as a hobby was going to be displayed for many to see and eventually buy.

Amid the pressure, Teo had some doubts:

Is anyone going to buy it?

Are people going to like the artwork?

It took him a year to prepare the pieces for his first exhibition.

Teo's paintings prepared and wrapped for the exhibition. Image via TAD Charity/FB.

After all his hard work, the then 12-year-old hung up his 25 art pieces in the art gallery and witnessed his paintings being sold, one after another.

Teo’s art exhibition in 2019. Image courtesy of J’den Teo.

Eventually, what was left was an empty gallery, with S$30,000 raised for The Children’s Cancer Foundation in 2018.

Teo doesn’t remember details like which painting was sold first, but he does remember how he felt – happy, proud, and motivated to keep this going.

Small act, big difference

Teo at his second art charity exhibition in 2019. Image courtesy of J’den Teo.

Teo held his second exhibition in 2019, raising S$50,000 that was donated to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.

To many, it is remarkable and noble – to raise so much money and donate it all to a good cause.

But this is Teo's response: “We all can use whatever is within our means to help others.”

Teo explained that he can’t afford to simply donate thousands of dollars to causes, emphasising again that he comes from an average-income family.

Instead, creating these art pieces is his way of contributing.

“The fact that the exhibition exists is a testament to how small efforts can help a big cause.”

Reflecting on his family background, Teo mused:

"Granted, having a middle-income status meant that certain elements of my charity (like paying for the exhibition space and materials for art pieces) are going to be harder.

It is precisely this circumstance that inspired me with my TAD Charity's idea – to start small, to start early and anyone can contribute including youth and children."

Teo plans to continue focusing his efforts on helping youths and children, starting with those in Singapore and hopefully branching out to those overseas in the near future.

Besides raising funds through his artwork, Teo also wants to spread the word about charity to other young people.

“Many want to help in whatever ways they can, but they lack motivation or the means to do so," observed Teo.

Thus, to encourage those who might be in this position, he has held what he calls “TAD talks” at his schools to share his experience, and plans to speak at more schools soon.

He hopes that TAD Charity can be the platform to encourage others to find their own way to help those who are less fortunate.

It seems that Teo’s efforts are bearing fruit. After his last exhibition, his peers contacted him through TAD Charity’s social media platforms to volunteer with administrative work, performances, and even hosting at his next exhibition.

“Knowing that I can inspire others to do charities as well (is motivating). You get to see others go out of their way to help too.”

Student, artist, and philanthropist

Image courtesy of J’den Teo.

One wonders how Teo, who’s taking his O-levels next year, will be able to juggle his studies, being a member of his school’s debate team, painting, and running TAD Charity.

The key is time management, he said, with a tinge of regret over how his punishing schedule takes time away from chilling and hanging out with his friends.

“Sometimes I feel exhausted and annoyed to give up my weekends,” said the teenager.

But with each successful charity art exhibition, Teo feels even more motivated to keep it going.

He also thinks that the work is “quite rewarding in itself”.

With his O-levels coming up and his plans to pursue tertiary education, preferably in medical science, his hours may become more strained than it is right now.

But Teo remains undaunted, saying that he intends to start planning his next exhibition in 2022.

Teo’s plans have yet to be firmed up — aside from the fact that he is toying around with the idea of augmented reality — it looks like there is much more that we can expect from this budding artist and humanitarian.

In recognition of his charitable work over the past three years, Teo is one of the winners of this year’s President's Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards.

You can keep up with Teo’s art exhibitions via the TAD Charity Facebook page.

Stories from the City of Good is a series on ordinary Singaporeans giving their best for others and inspiring each other to become a Singapore that cares. This is a collaboration between Mothership and the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre.

Top image courtesy of J’den Teo.