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Siblings Inspire Through Their Art

2006 Family of the Year recipients Joann and Norrin Lau with children Isaac and Tammy | Photo courtesy Norrin Lau

2006 Family of the Year recipients Joann and Norrin Lau with children Isaac and Tammy | Photo courtesy Norrin Lau

Two Hawaii Kai siblings are weaving and painting their way through the hearts of everyone they meet.

Isaac Lau creates woven art and also is a polyglot, which describes a person who speaks multiple languages. His older sister Tammy is a watercolor artist who believes “a picture is worth a thousand words,” because of the ability of a single photo or painting to instantly convey a flood of emotions, inspiration or a special message. The pair serves as messengers of hope and charity through their vibrant works of art and community service.

“Tammy does great watercolor paintings. We print her greeting cards so that she can sell them. She also has taken up Spanish, since her best friend went to the Canary Islands on a (LDS) church mission,” says father Norrin Lau.

But it is Isaac, his son, who has mastered five languages. He speaks English, Japanese, American Sign Language, Mandarin and Korean. “Funny, when he writes English, it looks like chicken scratch. But when he writes Chinese, it looks great,” chuckles Norrin. Each language resonates with Isaac in a distinct way, which brings out a different part of his character.

Isaac also likes to weave intricate patterns using a Japanese Saori loom, and braids thread with his hands. He has sold and even given away his art pieces to special people in his life. Isaac’s philosophy is simple: “It takes a variety of threads to make a tapestry, and it also takes a lot of people with different talents to make up the world in which we live today. So don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t judge us just because we’re different. Otherwise you will miss out on getting to know us,” says Isaac. Largely self-taught, both Tammy and Isaac are “mobility challenged.” They are over-achievers and do not consider themselves disabled, but rather “differently abled.”

The siblings have limited feet movements and are in wheelchairs because of cerebellar ataxia, a disorder of the nervous system that impairs muscle control. Yet through their hands, hearts and eyes, they have moved every muscle in their bodies to produce some touching and insightful originals.

Tammy’s watercolor art, for example, is on the cover of a book published last November called Ke Aloha Home. Some of her work, also is illustrated in a children’s book produced by Kapiolani Community College. Every human faces triumph and challenges in life, and Tammy and Isaac have had their share of both – mostly health conditions. In fact it’s a miracle that Tammy has made it to age 34 and Isaac to 33, when doctors predicted they would not live a day past their 14th birthdays.

“When Tammy was born, we noticed some strange head movements and that her eyes were different. The eye doctor said she had cataracts, and they had to be removed immediately or she would be blind for life. She was only 4 months old when she had the surgery,” says mother Joann Lau. As an infant, she had to wear patches over her eyes and splints (tongue depressors) on both of her arms to prevent her from scratching her eyes. Slow to walk, her geneticist diagnosed her with a rare disorder called Marinesco-Sjogren Syndrome (MSS), which affected her motor skills, writing, speaking and walking.

At the time of Tammy’s diagnosis, Joann was already pregnant with Isaac.

“Isaac was born healthy until a month old – we saw the same gray spots in his eyes and he too had to undergo cataract surgery and received the same diagnosis,” recalls Joann. Despite multiple surgeries and falling seriously ill, both are walking miracles today. “The kids have beaten the odds, living in their 30s, alive and excelling with their talents,” says Joann.

Norrin adds, “My son is a spiritual giant. He realizes that he and Tammy were sent here on earth so that others might learn to have compassion.” Though the siblings crawl to get around the house, they manage to be athletic and get a lot exercise weekly in the family’s 30-by-15-foot swimming pool.

The Laus contemplated a serious and risky surgery to straighten their children’s knee joints in 1991, and Isaac volunteered courageously: “I’ll do it. I’ll be the first!” he told his father.

The operation was not successful and, as a result, he suffers a lot. Isaac dreams of performing triple-axel jumps on ice like an Olympic skater, but when he wakes, he realizes he cannot make use of his legs. Rather than sulk, he and Tammy keep busy visiting a seniors care home in Hawaii Kai, stringing leis for church visitors most Sundays, and entertaining and uplifting people in need.

Their wants and desires are similar to young people their age. Tammy dreams of being a wife and homemaker. “I would like to meet a good man to marry. I hope to be more independent and walk on my crutches again someday,” she says. Watching the Winter Olympics reminded her of when she and Isaac earned gold and silver medals at the Hawaii Special Olympics.

Tammy’s watercolors and paintings are sold at Island Treasures at Koko Marina, and at some open markets. Tammy and Isaac Lau blog about their world travels and entrepreneurship experiences. Most importantly, they refuse to let their physical limitations prevent them from living a full life, expressing their feelings through their works of art, both through paintings and threads, and in the process making the world around them a better place.