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Record-breaking Delwin, the savant artist with Asperger’s

Delwin Cheah has been painting since he was a toddler. (Moganraj Villavan @ FMT Lifestyle)

BANGSAR: When artist Delwin Cheah was born, his father Lawrence Cheah, an IT specialist, was inspired to name his son after innovative tech giant Dell and operating software Windows.

What the 48-year-old father couldn’t have imagined back then was that his son would grow up to be an innovator too, on his own terms.

Delwin, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, has received worldwide recognition for his work as an artist.

Asperger’s is a developmental disorder that is a part of the autism spectrum disorder. People with Asperger’s generally struggle with socialising and relating to others, mostly because their behaviour and thought patterns are often rigid and repetitive.

However, this condition has been no barrier for the 20-year-old painter based in Penang.

“He started at age three, using pencils and pens to draw. We already started to notice that he was different from others because when he drew, he would keep drawing until he considered the drawing perfect. If he felt it was not what he wanted, he would throw the painting away,” Lawrence said.

Delwin’s family – who are based in Penang – has travelled all the way to France to help him seek inspiration. (Moganraj Villavan @ FMT Lifestyle)

“We never imagined that when he began drawing day and night, his body of work would grow so big over the years,” he said, adding that this led to Delwin’s first exhibition at age nine.

Looking back at the artist’s history, it is clear that Delwin spends no time horsing around.

In 2013, Delwin was listed in The Malaysia Book of Records as the youngest artist to hold a solo visual art exhibition with over 60 artworks.

That same year, he was deemed the world’s youngest savant autistic artist to hold a solo art exhibition by US-based body RecordSetter.

He then went on to publish a coffee table book “I Can Draw” the following year. A copy of the same book mysteriously ended up at the White House, leading the young artist to receive a letter of recognition signed by then-US president Barack Obama.

Besides Obama, Delwin’s work has been collected by renown figures such as Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh and the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Delwin’s primary muse is the animal kingdom, and he spent much time during the interview with FMT Lifestyle playing animal-related online games on his phone.

Delwin’s favourite animal is the horse. (Moganraj Villavan @ FMT Lifestyle)

“This is how he often is. He just really loves animals,” commented his father.

And his favourite animal? “Horses,” answered soft-spoken Delwin, with a wistful grin.

This year, Delwin took an unexpected departure from his favourite four-legged subject matter to work on portrait painting.

This led to the inception of his most recent exhibition “The Great Imagination” just last month at the PINKGUY gallery in Bangsar.

Developing the series over the span of a year, the exhibition – which is his third solo exhibition – was an inspired interpretation of Leonardo DaVinci’s oeurve in Delwin’s distinct style.

Delwin’s outstanding record at such a young age may be a source of inspiration for Malaysian parents, however Lawrence shared a cautionary message to “tiger” parents.

“When other parents see Delwin’s work, they might think they should also get their own children to do art and perhaps, be successful that way. But you have to understand what your children are interested in.

‘The Last Supper’ is a well-known mural painting by Leonardo DaVinci. (Moganraj Villavan @ FMT Lifestyle)

“Are they into art? If they are not, then you might as well let them try out what they are interested in and would love to do. If they don’t have a love for it, no matter how hard you force them to do something, it won’t happen,” he said.

Lawrence’s love and admiration for his son rings clear, and it is obvious that the nurturing support from Delwin’s parents has paved the way for his success despite his challenges.