Filipino-Canadian in Focus: Jose Antonio “J.A.” Tan

By , on April 30, 2014


J.A. with his favourite painting, “Festivity”.


J.A. held his brush as if it were a talisman and an extension of himself. He then let the colours cascade on canvass, while the camera panned alternately to his hand, his brush, his face. He was immersed in the moment, caught in the words he was trying to speak.

It was at once stark and beautiful.

The video, shown to me after the interview, was made by J.A.’s brother, Thomas, a screenwriter by profession, and it spoke of J.A.’s journey, of his autism, of his art. Of how everything was difficult but perfect for J.A., because he found a way to speak his truth.



Granville Island boasts of “fine waterfront restaurants, theatres, galleries, studios, unique shops, cafes and the most spectacular fresh food market you’ve ever seen.”

It is infused with colour and energy and showcased Vancouver’s sea to sky magnificence.

It is also a hotbed for art.

For Jose Antonio “J.A.” Tan, however, it is a sanctuary. It is there—at the Saltwater Studios off of Duranleau Street in Granville—that he spends his days speaking his mind through expressions/explosions of wonder and beauty.

To him, it was the flowing water that surrounds Granville, which one could barely hear in the distance, that soothed him best (the False Creek Inlet was few steps, in fact, from his studio) and allows him to bring to life his inner world.


J.A.’s world

J.A. was diagnosed as a high functioning child with autism before his third birthday. Describing himself as “an artist challenged with autism,” he gives us a deeper insight in his Artist’s Statement for “Victory”:

“One young boy listening to a different tune as he makes sense of the world around. Not an easy task as he perceives the world differently from others. He is met with confused looks, angry looks, disturbed looks, happy looks, questioning looks…so many questions but no one answer. Yet this young boy continues on his journey never giving up…”

“Victory” was one of the featured pieces on United Nations Stamps that commemorated Autism Awareness Month in April 2012. It was one of only eight pieces chosen from over200 worldwide submissions, and it catapulted J.A. to membership in the exclusive club of artists who have designed stamps for the United Nations.

Of this United Nations experience, J.A. divulged that he was excited but felt really nervous “because of the big place.” Like a true virtuoso, however, he has gotten over his initial apprehension of crowds and having too much attention.


Immigration and art

Canada figures prominently in J.A.’s victory. His family immigrated to Canada in May 2006 and it was here that he found freedom, peace and happiness.

“I am in a rich artistic and cultural environment. I like the different seasons especially spring, fall and winter. I also like it that summer is not so hot like in the Philippines. I am able to commute on my own and go around places feeling safe,” he says.

He applied to and was accepted at Emily Carr University of Art+Design. He completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in May 2010.

“Art is an integral part of my existence as each work represents a personal journey of me with myself, and myself with the world. Creating art pieces brings me a feeling of peace and happiness since the world around me becomes clearer through the visual pictures I paint and draw. I paint to bring out my thoughts, feelings and ideas and use my art to understand the world we live in. Through the colours and textures I use and the shapes I paint and draw, I communicate without having to use words. My painting is my journey,” he explains.

What couldn’t you do without? He says “brushes,” with both a smile and a flash of panic in the eyes. He loves it that in Granville Island, he can buy quality paints, canvasses and other art materials easily.

He tells me his influences include abstract expressionist painters Pablo Picasso, Joan Mitchell, John Murrow, Philip Guston and Claude Monet.

But on hero status in J.A.’s life are his great art teachers and mentors. He is very close to Jeanne Krabbendam, a visual artist and art educator who continues to give him art sessions (he actually shares her studio space); John Wertscheck, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of Emily Carr; Rodney Konopaki, Associate Professor; and Professor/Assistant Dean Landon McKenzie. They visit him from time to time at his studio. Their best advice to him: Never give up and always do your best.

This is also his advice to other aspiring artists: Never ever give up.

Author Donna Williams describes the world of autism in her book, Nobody, Nowhere:

One move In a world under glass, you can watch the world pass | And nobody can touch you, you think you are safe |But the wind can blow cold, in the depths of your soul |Where you think nothing can hurt you till it is too late.

J.A.’s story, however, has a happier, more uplifting ring to it. He says on his Victory Artist Statement:

“Supported by his immediate family—all five of them always a strong presence in his life—friends, and professionals, this young boy today has claimed victory over the many challenges of his life. Today, with happy faces around him he shows the world the “victory” of an artist with autism achieved with patience, discipline, perseverance, love, and a positive attitude.”


J.A. comes home to Manila once a year to share his talents and promote his advocacy. He also actively speaks at conferences, sharing his personal story about overcoming challenges and pursuing his passion for art. On May 3, 2014, J.A. will be one of the artists featured in the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society’s (VAHMS) Generation One group exhibit entitled, “So this is Canada: a juried art exhibition of impressions of Canada” on May 3 at 2pm at the International Arts Gallery, International Village Mall, 88 Pender St., Vancouver, B.C. You can visit J.A.’s works at and