The Remarkable Painter
By Jane Kingsu-Cheng
Twenty-two years ago, Arlene Bantoto gave birth to her firstborn and her only daughter Nina. Everything seemed normal, until Arlene and her husband Lord noticed that Nina’s eye contact was fleeting. “Nina would also sit around just watching Disney videos, while her cousins and friends would be running around playing and interacting. She lost the few words that she had spoken when she turned one,” Lord reveals about this alarming observation.
Most parents would be in denial that something was amiss, leaving their child to find their own way out of that rabbit hole. But Lord and Arlene knew something was different. “We were concerned and started to seek professional help. Eye contact is very important and social skills and interaction with young children. Parents know best. Don’t wait,” says Lord.
It was only when Nina turned three years old that the official diagnosis of autism was confirmed. There was no sugarcoating involved, with both developmental pediatrician Dr. Alexis Reyes and neuropsychologist Dr. Lourdes Kalaw-Ledesma delivering a straightforward answer—there was no cure for autism.
Lord and Arlene agreed that there was no time to sulk. “This is a lifelong disease that will affect not only Nina, but us as well. We felt devastated from day one. Our hope for her future was like a mirror that was shattered into a million pieces, but we immediately moved on because there were so many things to do for Nina. Dr. Reyes was very helpful and explained the benefits of early intervention,” they recall.
When Nina turned six years, she could already recall the names, colors, and all the 50 characters from the Mr. Happy book. A lightbulb moment happened when they discovered that she would draw her favorite Disney characters non-stop. They finally found Nina’s passion! “So we got lots of paper, pencils, crayons, and colorful books for her to copy and color,” remembers Lord.
From there, the parents sought art teachers to supplement this passion of hers, even hiring one when they moved to China. It was only when they moved back to the Philippines that the possibilities just got more exciting.
“We were looking for an art mentor who could be her friend. One of my wife’s colleagues at work recommended her daughter. Ms. Melli Villavicencio was an art major in her early 20s who instantly clicked with Nina. That was the most important factor,” Lord says.
Under the mentorship of Melli, Nina has added pop art, anime, and chibi illustrations to her repertoire. “She takes photos of things that she likes whenever we go out. She also brings her black eco-bag with pencils and sketchbook, so she can draw whenever she feels like drawing,” says Lord about his daughter who enjoys sketching while listening to her favorite tunes from ABBA.
Nina’s drawing sessions became more frequent, paving the way for her to represent the Philippines in celebration of the United Nations World Autism Awareness Day in April 2017 in New York. Nina also handpainted on the piña fabric, which was used on the gowns and shawls presented at the Fashion for Hope show in New York.
“People were amazed with her immense talent and attention to detail. Nina showed the world that she was not disabled, but only differently abled. Her work, together with her enthusiasm and positive outlook, continues to inspire all those around her. And when you are able to touch people’s hearts and move people’s minds, that is a triumph worth all the challenges that she will face in the future,” beams the proud father.
Making a global mark inspired Nina’s parents to mount something special back here in Manila. Through the encouragement of friends and family, they finally mustered up the courage to mount Nina’s first solo exhibit. “We just felt it was the right time for her to showcase her works to the general public. As a parent of a special needs person, we really thought long and hard before even considering it,” explains Lord.
It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill art exhibit, the parents added some extra treats such as her works printed on merchandise such as bags for sale and augmented reality (AR) technology to three of her artworks. “AR is an experiential technology. It is a fantastic way to fully engage with the consumers,” adds Lord. Another section of the venue had a three-panel set of abstract paintings up on display. Inspired from her favorite Disney shows, these paintings were Nina’s way of interacting with the viewers, challenging visitors to look for the hidden Mickey Mouse.
A total of 24 artworks were sold from the exhibit, with proceeds going to the Rehabilitation and Empowerment of Adults and Children with Handicap (REACH) Foundation. And this is just the beginning, Lord and Arlene will always be there to make Nina’s dreams come true, “She wants to make people feel good whenever they see her works,” beams Lord. “And Nina wants to visit the ABBA museum in Stockholm again. That’s her Disneyland!”