‘Even when my mother called me a ‘poor artist’, I kept practicing. I found other teachers who believed in me.’

My mother would always tell me to stop when I was drawing. ‘You’ll be nothing but a poor artist,’ she’d say. Her life was very difficult. She worked in a sweatshop, so she wanted me to get a ‘real job’ when I grew up.

Art was my only talent. I was failing every class. I couldn’t speak English well. But I’d paint these little watercolors, and it was enough to make my teachers say: ‘Wow.’


A program was offered to my school when I was fifteen years old. They were looking for kids to paint a mural on the school’s courtyard. Ten of us were chosen.

Arlan Huang was the instructor. He was a true, working artist. He’d gone to art school. But most importantly he was the first artist I’d ever met who looked like me.

Arlan Huang the mentor

My father was not there. So I felt I needed someone to hold onto. Arlan brought us to his studio in SoHo, and it was like: ‘Wow! You can do this for a living.’

He taught us the art of visual storytelling. He taught us the art of symbolism. He taught us how to feel deeply and express our feelings. These were complex concepts for us as children.

The mural painted by students - future artist kam mak
Students painted the mural | HONY

The theme of our mural was: ‘Tell your story.’ At the time I lived in the housing projects. I created a huge extended hand with my building emerging from it. It was like: ‘Look at how we live.’

When I finished Arlan told me: ‘This is good. You are good.’ And oh my God. I was able to overcome so many obstacles thanks to that encouragement. Even when my mother called me a ‘poor artist,’ I kept practicing.

A school artwork project by the future artist

I found other teachers who believed that I was worthy. I eventually received a scholarship to The School of Visual Arts. My mother began to cry when the envelope arrived at her home. She wasn’t happy. Because she knew she couldn’t stop me anymore.

Even after I got my degree, she couldn’t see the value. She took that moment from me. She begged me to apply at the post office. Arlan congratulated my success.

artist Kam Mak with mentor Arlan Huang

Arlan was the one who attended my graduation. Looking back on my entire journey, there is not a moment when I don’t see him.

We’re great friends now. Arlan was the first person I showed when I was asked by the US Postal Service to create a series of stamps celebrating the Lunar New Year.

Respected artist Kam Mak

You can find more of Kam Mak’s work, including his Lunar New Year series, on his Instagram @kammakart.

Here are some comments regarding the author’s story:

I feel for both of them…mom was exhausted from the sweatshops and hoped for a little respite and some income stability in less harsh environments for her son and son needed a more emotionally present mom. I don’t understand how people on here could both say she was selfish but not acknowledge the arduous work she did to provide for her kid. If you are angry with anyone, you should be mad at our immigration and employment system that creates these conditions for these two human beings to navigate.” – Sharmaine Daniels

We need to be reminded of the power of encouragement; everything from a hands-on mentorship to sometimes just a very few words from a teacher, a relative or friend saying “you can do this”. You can create a tsunami with butterfly wings.” – Erin Quinn Purcell

Powerful. The power of consistency. You helped us to see the Arlans of life. Mama wanted the best for you. You achieved what mama wanted. Although you achieved what mama wanted, the best came from the opposite side of how she wanted it. A beautiful tribute to your mentor, inspiration.” – Mutebe Henry

About the author
This story first appeared on Humans of New York Facebook page and is published here with permission. For more amazing stories and photography buy the book HUMANS by Brandon Stanton.

Please go to the following link to submit an essay (reflections about life), a personal story (inspirational, humorous), or a photo that inspired. HERE.)