Ever encountered a situation where someone reveals that they’re suffering from a certain condition and your mind immediately gets hold of all the tiny bits of knowledge that you have about the illness and form a perception about the person? We’ve all probably been through it and so, it didn’t come as a surprise when Joyce Moi (Janet’s mum) revealed to me that there was a time when Janet prohibited her to talk about her illness altogether. While this could have been dangerous for Janet, at some point she began to get tired of the constant ‘Nos’ that she’s been receiving in life instead of the chance to try something new and develop her existing skills.

As women, this International Women’s Day, we’re called to #BreakTheBias and do our part to support other women out there to achieve their dreams, regardless of their health condition, background, social status and the likes. As a parent, caregiver and manager, Joyce reveals how, despite all the limitations that the 33-year-old Janet has had in her life, she’s her own boss today thanks to the people who gave her a chance and how as women, everyone should #BreakTheBias together so that others can achieve their dreams too.

Can you share with us more about Janet’s condition and when you first discovered it?

“Janet was a healthy baby at birth, but she had her first seizure when she was eight months old. While doctors thought it was caused by a viral infection, it turned out to be epilepsy. This was confirmed by the doctors when she was a year and a half old, when the seizures became more frequent. As parents who were new to epilepsy at that time, my husband and I prevented Janet from doing a lot of things, including going out with her cousins and participating in any social activities. Even simple chores at home were avoided as we feared for her safety since her seizures could happen anytime and without any warning. All of those compounded and made Janet feel that epilepsy was a bad thing. She eventually moved into a phase where she didn’t allow us to speak about her medical condition to others, and whenever we did, she would get annoyed with us.”

How and when did you find out that Janet had a knack for painting?

“Aside from epilepsy, Janet also started to show signs of learning difficulties when she started kindergarten. While she seemed to have reached her developmental milestone, she struggled to read and write. But she loved to colour and that’s when we decided to send her for art classes, hoping that if studies weren’t her strength, she could turn to art to earn a living. Sadly, four or five teachers came back with the conclusion that art isn’t her forte. As all of us in the family (her dad, sister and myself) aren’t fans of art, we had to assume that this unanimous conclusion cannot be wrong. As I tried to explore what else she could do to earn a living (since intractable epilepsy meant that working for others wasn’t an option), I realised that colouring was something that she continued to hang on to. So in 2010, I started talking to more people to see what kind of career is available for people who love colours. This was the start of her journey as an artist and in 2011, I found an art teacher who was willing to guide her whilst giving her the flexibility to decide on her own topic and colours.”

How was the initial step of trying to penetrate into the arts scene in Malaysia like?

“Janet’s profession as an artist didn’t kick off in Malaysia as it was really hard. We didn’t understand enough about art to be convinced that she’s an artist. We also didn’t know how or where to showcase her artwork outside of events that are catered for special needs, autistic or disabled children. Janet wasn’t happy to participate in these events too as she was adamant on portraying herself to look like any one of us and being treated as a normal person. During our dilemma, we were thankful to Dr Julie Thompson-Dobkin from The Hidden Truths Project for organising a yearly art exhibition in California, USA, that is specially meant for epileptic patients to showcase their talent in art. In 2014, her artwork was first showcased at this exhibition and thereafter, things became easier for us.”

How did Janet respond to the exhibition and how did it change her personally?

“The event was an eye opener for her, in that there is nothing wrong for a person to suffer from epilepsy. It motivated her as she saw her artworks finding themselves into the home of American families – people who were complete strangers to her and in a foreign land at that. Simply put, the response was beyond her imagination! On 7th November 2020, Janet went ahead and set up her own gallery following the requests from interested parties who were asking how they could view her physical artwork.”

Moving forward, what can Janet’s fans expect from her in 2022?

“Janet will be driving her brand as a platform for the differently abled through various partnerships – both local and international – and will continue to uphold the DNA of her gallery which revolves around power, empowerment and gratitude. Aside from that, NFT will be her next venture with the aim of generating a wider visibility by showcasing more of her artwork, which will hopefully encourage everyone – not just the differently abled – to never give up on their dreams.”

As Janet’s parent, caregiver and manager, what is the one advice you’d like to share with everyone out there about epilepsy?

“Epilepsy isn’t something that anyone should be afraid of. Epilepsy triggers are prevalent in every one of us but we don’t realise it as it may come and go in a very short period of time. Our ‘stoned’ moments in life might be us having an attack, but we snap out of it quickly, unlike others. Therefore, we should treat all epileptic patients just like how we treat everyone else, but with a little more caution. Keep an eye on them and don’t leave them alone for an extended period of time.”

What does women empowerment mean to you and Janet, and what’s your take on the #BreakTheBias campaign this year in line with International Women’s Day?

“In a nutshell, it’d be to show society in today’s world that women are strong individuals. Women have many roles to play – from being a daughter to a mum and an entrepreneur – and giving up should never be on any woman’s dictionary. In the context of the new norm, this can be a real challenge and that is why as women, we should always support one another so that we can be stronger in everything we do, which will lead to greater heights.”

In line with International Women’s Day, Janet Lee’s ‘Blossoming Colours’ exhibition will be held from 1st to 31st March to. Click here to find out more and how you can book a slot.

Featured image: @artistjanetlee

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