Artist with cerebral palsy winning fans in Kazakhstan, Spain and elsewhere25 april 2015, 14:44
When Tolkyn Sakbayeva was 18, she applied for a place in the Almaty College of Arts and Crafts.
She aced the school’s written entrance exam, answering every question correctly.
The next step was showing her art to a five-person admissions committee -- professors who would make the final decision on whether she could attend the college.
The committee recognized Tolkyn’s talent, but expressed misgivings about admitting her. The reason: She had cerebral palsy.
No disabled student had ever applied to the college, and the professors were hesitant to accept the responsibility that would come with her admission.
A still life by Tolkyn Sakbayeva. Photo courtesy of Tolkyn Sakbayeva.
One of the school’s maestros, renowned artist and professor Kenzhebay Duisenbayev, walked by the open door as the committee was discussing its concerns with Tolkyn.
He caught a glimpse of the bright-colored paintings she had brought with her, and popped in for a closer look.
“This work is amazing,” he said. “This young lady has such talent in color. I want her in my classes.”
It was a pivotal moment in the story of the 25-year-old, who has been painting in Spain for 18 months and who will earn a second degree -- from Almaty’s prestigious National Art Academy -- in June. Her talent, grit and love of life have inspired her family, artists, art lovers, the disabled and the general public in Kazakhstan and abroad.
Her mother and father were inspired to the point of forming a non-government organization in Almaty to help integrate the disabled – who have traditionally been cloistered in Kazakhstan -- into mainstream society.
Tolkyn’s accomplishments include an exhibition in July of 2014 in Barcelona and plans for an exhibition in Madrid in September of this year. The Kazakhstan Embassy is helping her arrange the show in the Spanish capital, which is expected to draw both art aficionados and the diplomatic corps.
Family support has been crucial to Tolkyn’s success. Next to her is her older sister Togzhan and in the middle her younger sister Meruyert. The others in the photo are friends Maira and Sheker Nurke. Photo courtesy of Tolkyn Sakbayeva.
Tolkyn’s art is Impressionistic, with elements of the Cubism she loves in Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s work. Two of her trademarks are bright colors that convey an optimism about life and an ability to evoke emotion in those who view her pieces. Viewers will tell you that when you see her work, you can’t help but feel it’s coming from her soul.
You can see some of Tolkyn’s pieces at her website, www.tolkynsakbayeva.com.
Tolkyn’s biggest dream is to have an exhibition in New York, which many artists consider the pinnacle of their career.
Kazakhstan artist Tolkyn Sakbayeva admires Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. Photo courtesy of Tolkyn Sakbayeva.
When Tolkyn was born with cerebral palsy in 1990, doctors advised her parents, Altay and Aspet Sakbayev, to give her up to a state-run care facility for disabled children. Meeting her constant needs would be too daunting for them, the doctors said.
Her parents would have none of it.
Not only did they take care of their daughter’s physical needs – like feeding her well beyond the age when non-disabled children needed to be fed – but they showered her with love and attention. So did her older sister Togzhan, now 33, and her younger sister Meruyert, now 23.
Altay loved literature, and would read to Tolkyn daily, Togzhan told me recently. Tolkyn asked me to do a Skype interview with Togzhan rather than her because cerebral palsy makes it difficult to speak clearly.
Until Tolkyn was 7, she had to lie on pillows because she was unable to sit up, said Togzhan, who earned an economics degree at KIMEP University.
That didn’t prevent Tolkyn from developing a keen interest in art.
It started as a preschooler, when she fell in love with Pippi Longstocking, the red-haired, freckle-faced heroine of Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s children’s books.
Tolkyn decided she wanted to draw Pippi, but her condition made it hard for her even to hold a pencil. Seeing the shine in her eyes, her engineer Papa came up with a simple but effective solution: He Scotch-taped the pencil to her hand.
Because of palsy it would sometimes take her three hours to draw just one line. But she persisted, with encouragement from everyone in the family.
Art gave Tolkyn a zest for living and a determination to overcome obstacles, Togzhan said.
At 7, with the help of physical therapy and massage, she sat up for the first time. At 11 she stood and began walking.
“For us, the moment she stood was a miracle,” Togzhan said. “Her first steps were another miracle. And the first time she walked down the stairs was yet another.”
Even now, Tolkyn starts every day with several minutes of the gymnastics her father taught her as physical therapy.
Tolkyn was a bright child, and the Sakbayevs wanted to enroll her in a good mainstream public school so she could develop her intellectual potential. None would take her. Nor would a mainstream private school.
So she attended a series of schools for the disabled. In Kazakhstan educational standards at such schools are low. Tolkyn learned little at them.
Tolkyn’s portrait of a Spanish man. Photo courtesy of Tolkyn Sakbayeva.
When she was 14, a government agency gave her a wheelchair.
Shortly thereafter “my dad took all of us to the mountains,” Togzhan said. “Dad took the wheelchair out of the car, and we all stood on a rock. Then he turned to Tolkyn and said, ‘You will never sit in this wheelchair,’ and he pushed it down the hill.”
It was a moment filled with symbolism, Togzhan said – a sign that neither the family nor Tolkyn would let anything prevent her from achieving her dreams.
Tolkyn was admitted to the Almaty College of Arts and Crafts in 2008.
In 2012, after her graduation, she chose to continue her education at the National Art Academy.
Duisenbayev, the professor who had insisted that she enter the arts and crafts college, gave the academy a glowing recommendation about her.
Knowing Tolkyn not only has enriched his life but changed his art, he has noted.
Tolkyn with her mentor Kenzhebay Duisenbayev, a renowned artist who insisted she be admitted to the Almaty College of Arts and Crafts. Photo courtesy of Tolkyn Sakbayeva.
Before she became his student, his paintings were in dark hues – grays, browns and blacks. After they met, his compositions became brighter, with a lot more colors, reflecting a renewed optimism about life.
One day the maestro paid tribute to Tolkyn in front of an arts and crafts college crowd, Togzhan said. “I’ve learned as much from you as you have from me,” he said. Tolkyn burst into tears.
Students at the National Art Academy are encouraged to study abroad if they can make the arrangements, and in mid-2013 Tolkyn decided to go to Barcelona.
Meruyert, who is a year younger and so close to her that the two could be twins, volunteered to accompany her.
At the time, Meruyert was also enrolled at the art academy – in the fashion-design sequence. Going to Spain would mean interrupting her studies. But it was a small price to pay to help her sister – and, besides, what an adventure!
Tolkyn has loved the independence she’s felt in Spain. She even drives a motor scooter to the beach to paint, Togzhan said.
Tolkyn chose Spain as a study-abroad location because it’s where Picasso spent his formative years as an artist. Barcelona, the city in northeastern Spain that Picasso called home – although he spent much of his life overseas – has been as inspirational as she hoped it would.
She’s also taken inspiration from the cultural melting pot of Andalusia in southern Spain, Togzhan said.
Both Barcelona and Andalusia are full of magnificent art and architecture.
Tolkyn’s art has become richer as she’s painted, taken master classes and visited galleries in Spain.
Her work has attracted the attention of Spain’s art community. In fact, a lifestyle and arts magazine did a feature story on her a few weeks ago.
Tolkyn and Meruyert have developed many friendships in Spain, with artists and non-artists alike.
Tolkyn Sakbayeva at an exhibition of her art in Barcelona. With her are three friends from a language school she attended – from left, Matt Bauer from France and Irada Garashova and Carlos G. Puga, both from Spain. Photo courtesy of Tolkyn Sakbayeva.
When Tolkyn graduates from the National Art Academy in Almaty in three months, the sisters plan to pursue degrees in Spain – Tolkyn a master’s and Meruyert a bachelor’s in languages.
The two are also working on designing fashionable orthopedic shoes for those with cerebral palsy and other conditions that affect the feet.
In Kazakhstan orthopedic shoes are clunky and ugly – and the art-conscious Tolkyn hated wearing them, Togzhan said.
In Spain, she and Meruyert noticed that those with orthopedic needs could find shoes in attractive styles and colors. They want to introduce similarly fashionable shoes to Kazakhstan to brighten the lives of orthopedic-shoe wearers there.
Tolkyn also wants to help Kazakhstan’s disabled become more integrated in society.
Tolkyn’s portrait of a viola player displays the bright colors that are one of her hallmarks. Photo courtesy of Tolkyn Sakbayeva.
“When I was in the United States and Canada, I saw so many disabled people working at Wal-Mart and other places, and I saw many disabled people on the street,” Togzhan said.
In Kazakhstan, “our disabled people are isolated from society. You can’t see them in public places like shopping malls and restaurants.”
Kazakhstan has taken steps to integrate the disabled, including encouraging citizens to form non-governmental organizations focused on their needs. But both government officials and the non-profit community will tell you a lot more needs to be done.
Tolkyn’s parents started helping disabled children as volunteers in 1999, then formed an NGO in 2004 so they could do the work full-time. It’s called Integration AS, with the “AS” standing for Aspet Sakbayeva’s initials.
Her parents’ decision to give up the grocery business they owned to help the disabled made their daughters admire them even more, Togzhan said.
The couple ran the NGO until Altay died four years ago. Aspet didn’t want to continue working in a setting that contained so many memories of her beloved husband, so she turned the organization over to others.
The family still misses Altay, who was the glue that held them together and the sparkplug behind Tolkyn’s success.
They will never forget his words to them as he was dying.
The man who had been such an inspiration to Tolkyn, his wife and his two other daughters told them that he was the one who had been enriched. “You are the ones who inspired me,” he said with conviction.
He would be proud knowing that Tolkyn, her Mom and sisters continue generating that inspiration.