Heidi Dong, 28, of Palos Verdes Estates, an autistic ballerina and watercolor artist, is the best example of living up to one’s potential—against inimitable odds. 

Currently, poet and mentor Elizabeth Cantine, director emeritus to the special needs talent group Ready, Willing and Able, (RWA) is collaborating with Dong on an evocative book. 

Their undertaking, “Brush of Giftedness” is a work of love featuring poems by Cantine illustrated by interpretations of famous artworks painted by Dong. Cantine is searching for a publisher and is hoping to display the works locally when all 18 of them are completed.

Through artwork, said Cantine, people with autism, Down symdrome and other challenges can find a voice.

First, Cantine shows Dong the original masterpiece, for example, Edgar Degas' famous ballerinas. Mentor and student discuss the artist and his life. And, then Dong goes to work painting to recreate her own masterpiece.

Heidi’s mother, Iris Dong, said she discovered her daughter’s drawing talents at age two. 

“One day she started having a tantrum while we were in the car,” said Iris who is originally from Seoul, Korea. “I gave her paper and pencils and found out she loves to draw. When we would go to the store she never centered on any other toys, but only wanted art materials like crayons, water colors and sketchbooks.” 

Iris said Heidi used to open crayon boxes just to touch and smell the waxy implements. She said she realized the gesture was a way for her daughter to grasp the concept of colors and drawing at a young age. 

Heidi, who can read and write, has difficulty speaking to people outside her close circle of family and friends. She may walk right pass a greeter without acknowledging the person who spoke to her. 

Often people with autism don’t make eye contact, but it’s not because they are being rude, Cantine said. 

Heidi’s watercolor drawings highlighted in “Brush of Giftedness” are only an inkling of her drawing talents. She favors vibrant colors and is able to catch the mood, perspective and the original artist’s intent. 

But drawing isn’t her only talent. 

“She loves to do everything,” Iris said of her daughter who also snow skis at Big Bear mountain. “At four, she went to ballet classes, but couldn’t get along with the other kids. “She started again 10 years ago.”

Cantine, a retired classroom and dance educator for more than 50 years, discovered one of her other prodigies, prima ballerina for the American Ballet Theater in New York, Misty Copeland.

Co-volunteers at the Performing Art Conservatory agree the lively instructor has an eye for finding the talent within, besides possessing incredible stamina. 

“My motivation to embark on this current endeavor with beautiful Heidi was to show that those with autism, Down syndrome and other challenges do not need to vocalize—the arts validate their volumes of verses,” Cantine said. “My goal is to have individual booklets for primary students, students with special needs, upper grades, as well as hard-bounds for colleges and the general public.” 

Heidi takes weekly classes at the Palos Verdes Performing Arts Conservatory and is able to understand and perform numerous genres. She has mastered the graceful arms, pique turns and pirouettes right along side her assistants and mentors, Cantine said. 

South High student Kate Hendrick, who seems to belie her 14 years in gracefulness and maturity, is working with Heidi as a mentor for an upcoming performance of Swan Lake with the RWA showcase in December. They warm up at the barre in Cantine’s home studio together on Wednesdays after school and practice intricate ballet and jazz variations. 

And Cantine who has been on Heidi’s journey for more than a decade said a big part of her own life has aimed to deepen and explore her faith “through expressions of gratitude and grace” using movement and poetry to engage her students and others to explore their talent with all their mind, body and soul. 

On Nov. 16 from 9 a.m. to noon, Cantine will present a half-day retreat at the Mary & Joseph Retreat Center billed as “Deepening Gratitude and Grace through Word and Movement.”

She will speak about her book collaboration with Heidi as well as help others compose poems for the holidays. To register, call 310-377-4867, ext. 234. 

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