The art of empowerment through art (Part I)

An interview with Chow Pei Huan & Bjorn Wong, founders of Show & Tell Studios.

In a society that is obsessed with time maximising and wanting quick results, learning and education is often rushed through or done simply to pass exams or get to the next level. However, any learning that is meaningful and enriching takes time, and the process may not be straightforward but the ‘reward’ could be in the learning journey itself.

This is the ethos behind Show & Tell Studios — founders Chow Pei Huan & Bjorn Wong talk about their journey in starting an art studio for children to explore their interest in art, and some of their most rewarding moments 3.5 years into the business.

Q: How did the idea for Show & Tell Studios come about?

Chow PH: We both came from creative backgrounds in school, but eventually pursued professions in other industries. I found my calling in early childhood education, while Bjorn had a career in sports marketing.

Having experienced frequent bouts of less-than-ideal practices sprinkled through the course of our respective work, a certain sense of purpose and passion had worn off. Work was meaningful, but extraneous bureaucracy and workplace politics draining. After roughly a decade in the workforce, we felt it was time to move on.

I had kept art close to us all this while and always felt it to be empowering. After a couple weeks of ideation, we drew up a compelling design and threw caution to the wind. All of it. We tendered our resignations and put in the deposit for a studio unit we stumbled upon.

Show & Tell Studios was founded on the philosophy that every mind is unique; every interaction meaningful. It is a space where different conversations take place and where we explore ideas through art. Here, art’s ability to engage, articulate ideas, broaden horizons and promote discovery holds a deeper meaning than simply that of providing visual aesthetics.

Bjorn W: There is also something about the children’s art education industry that didn’t sit well with us — a disturbingly unhealthy (and often skewed) focus on outcomes being polished. Parents are frequently misinformed or misinterpret what goes on in class.

Peihuan and I have been teaching at various times in several established art studios through the years and see how lessons are delivered. Rather than taking the situation as an opportunity to have a constructive dialogue, teachers are often instructed to simply pretty up the students’ works to a level of quality that panders to parents’ expected outcomes. Lesson delivery often pales in comparison to what’s being marketed. Class sizes are often unrealistic and many even have no qualms putting together kids of varying ages in the same class.

It’s important that parents understand what is developmentally appropriate for their children and appreciate their abilities at any given level. Improvements come progressively with time, encouragement, practice, guidance, influence and a dozen other factors. It’s important that this is understood. Show & Tell Studios gives us a platform to have deeper conversations about these aspects constructively.

Q: What were your early struggles when you all started the studio? How did you all manage to tackle these challenges and what were some key lessons?

B: There were many things that we struggled with at the start, but the biggest ones stemmed from financials and learning to let go of a certain sense of security. We had left our jobs and set aside a budget to give our idea a whirl, but things don’t always go according to plan. After two years, my life savings had dwindled to all of $5,000. Imagine that, as newlyweds with a house on the way and business overheads to boot.

We knew the power of art, not quite the art of running a business.

Despite this, we learnt along the way, stayed positive and trucked on. The most important thing is to learn fast and not let perfection get in the way of progress.

I was also able to tap onto my somewhat unconventional skill set by providing bespoke products to private and corporate clients. This complemented the core business pretty well.

C: We don’t just teach; we are content creators. We craft lessons to provide our students the most immersive, interactive and engaging learning experiences possible, keeping in mind the unique interests of everyone we teach.

Keeping ideas fresh in the saturated market is also crucial, so we are constantly thinking on our feet and aggressively pushing for better. After all, producing good work isn’t done by flicking a switch.

As a small business with no resources to hire, we also juggle between wearing various hats (creative, business, operational, administrative, janitorial, etc), which has taken some getting used to. Managing these (often opposing) demands is a fine balance.

Q: After running the studio for over three years, what would you all say are the most rewarding moments or significant milestones?

C: Having started from scratch, we are particularly thankful for clients who have been with us from the very start. A number of them have even become close friends. I think it comes from simply being genuinely interested and wanting the best for their kids. We treat each of them as our own and make it a point to understand each of them on a personal level. We know their fears and strengths, hopes and aspirations. Understanding what makes them tick as individuals allows us to connect on a deeper level, which helps us teach better.

One of the most rewarding things is being able to see them grow over the time and having a place in their growing years.

B: It’s a special feeling when parents come to us and in appreciation for what we do; that they see the value in it. This is heartening. Some students travel across half the island to attend classes with us. That might be a two-and-a-half-hour commute to and fro for just an hour in class. It puts things into perspective and we never take for granted the trust earned.

A parent once approached us sharing that her child had no confidence in art and hated the subject in school. We explained that there are many variables in a school setting, but invited him to try out a few sessions anyway. He turned out to have a particularly sharp wit, was curiously well-versed with 80s soft-rock and had an appreciation for exotic foods. These were such interesting things that we could exchange conversations about and expand on, weaving them into his artworks’ narratives. The student eventually signed up for classes twice a week and realised he actually loved art.

We often hear that teaching is a thankless job, but when we see it as a mission to inspire and make a difference. This changes things. Since starting Show & Tell Studios, I’ve learnt that indicators of success can often be intangible and tricky to quantify. They certainly don’t always appear as a monetary value.

We all have the choice to define what success means to us as individuals, and is really something we ought to do. I took a chance making the decision for us to walk this path and have been blessed with the support of friends and family. We’ve since acquired invaluable experiences that go beyond conventional expectations of society.

Stay tuned for Part II of the interview!

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