On the Spectrum: Art and Autism
Artists shine bright in group exhibition at Westside ArtWalk
Steve Selpal, 50, Palm Bay, Fla.
Everyone is different. Art as a career choice is certainly not for everyone, including those who have natural artistic ability. Art has been my life. Form follows function — that’s one of my many rules, which are so brilliantly easy to follow that they’re automatic. Art is not meant to be “pretty.” It must spur questions in the minds of viewers, or else it is impotent.
In London, Ontario, where I was born, I earned the special art certificate from H.B. Beal, majoring in sculpture. Later I earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. At Hickok Technical Institute, I earned an A.S. certificate in technical drawing. The last certificate gave me skills to enter a large corporation as a draftsman, and I was promoted to positions where they utilized my illustration skills and organizational skills to become a middle manager as a creative director and more.
Commercial art paid for my gallery art so that I could gain exposure. Whether it was art for hire or for a gallery, it always satisfied my aesthetic.
Art and life are humorous. While I was in my last year at Beal, in Canada, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. The doctors couldn’t make a diagnosis of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) back then. Today, I’m still an outpatient of psychiatric care. At 55, I was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. I knew I had been like this all my life, in my heart, and I laughed.
Lately, I have new goals. I did some presentations regarding autism and a TV interview. I want people to know that they can get an education and focus on a career of their choice through persistence, as I have done.
My most recent art focuses on my mission toward autism awareness. The new series of work called Autism VIPs, introduces to the public the spokesmen and spokeswomen for the cause of autism awareness. This series includes Temple Grandin, Keri Bowers, Stephen Shore and Debra Hosseini. Soon there will be others who are living as well as those famous individuals who have been identified posthumously as having had ASD in the writings of Michael Fitzgerald, Tony Attwood and Simon Baron-Cohen. I plan portraits of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Emily Dickenson, Anais Nin and St. Joan of Arc.
For anyone talented with artistic abilities and who has a diagnosis of ASD, I recommend vocational counseling as well as clinicians. ASD people are focused, and I see that as our strongest attribute, because we can impact society in a very positive way. Our difference is good, not bad. Autism awareness and the push for changes in legislation is an ongoing movement, similar to the civil rights and women’s rights movements throughout the world. This will eventually help autistics and their parents overcome their fears and have a life. It will bridge the differences between neurologically typical people and autistic people. In our global culture, our definition of what it is to be human will surely change for the better.
Kevin Hosseini, 17, Carpinteria
Kevin Hosseini recently received the Award of Excellence, a $2,000 prize, for his acrylic painting “Bus or Cycle” on behalf of VSA (Very Special Arts) and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. for the exhibition “Sustaining/Creating.” “Bus or Cycle” will be on display Sept. 11 through Jan.13 at the Smithsonian Institution, S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive, SW, in Washington, D.C.
Autism makes me hear, smell, taste, think and feel differently. I think I’m lucky to be autistic. When I cross the railroad tracks I hear the trains before anyone else. I hear music in my head. When the teacher talks in the class, it’s hard for me to listen because of the music. I like music. If I listen to music in the morning, I can hear music in my head all day. I like mariachi and most Middle Eastern music. Persian music makes me excited. I like to drum really fast. I go to Solvang and drum with Hidden Wings. I’ve painted drumming and drums.
Some smells and tastes bother me and I can’t be in the room or I say, “Yuck.” Some fabrics bother me. I don’t like to wear jeans or things that are stiff or scratchy.
I think my memory is better than other people’s. I can remember things from a long time ago. I remember the names of everyone who has worked with me. I can remember names of children in my preschool class. I can remember things that my family can’t.
When I was little, I used to run off and scream because a lot of things bothered me — noises, lights, smells. When I was 14 my mind started tricking me. I thought things were happening when they weren’t. I’m 17 and my mind doesn’t trick me as much.
I go to the gym and work out. I can’t do a pushup. I play basketball. I’m tall. That’s good for basketball. I was on the all-star basketball team for Special Olympics this year.
Painting makes me feel good. I’ve been painting since I was 9. I don’t like to draw. I like to paint. I started using texture in my painting when I was 10. Thick paint feels smooth on the canvas. I use the palette knife to add more texture. Texture makes me want to touch the canvas. I like to dab colors like Van Gogh because it makes my hand feel good. I like to roll the paint brush. I like to look at artists who use lots of texture and color. It makes me feel good to look at those paintings and paint like that.
I find photographs to paint from, of things that I like. I’ve painted food, desserts, animals, people, flowers and places I’d like to visit. I like photographs where I can see the texture. I like to paint the ocean. The ocean has all kinds of colors like green, gray, white, blue and turquoise. I like to paint landscapes, cityscapes and nature scenes. I like to paint the Middle East, because my dad is from the Middle East. I like to paint Mexico because I want to go to Mexico. I want people to be interested in the countries I paint. I like when people say they like my art.
When I’m an adult, I will still paint. I may paint to make a living. I may open a Middle Eastern restaurant with my Dad.
Jason Cantu, 26, Morro Bay
My name is Jason Cantu, I am 26 years old, and my birthday is Aug. 27. Growing up, I always felt slightly different from the norm, but it wasn’t until I was about 10 that I found out why; I was autistic. What does it mean to be autistic? Well, it all depends on who you are, and whether you have autism or not. I have autism, yet I have never felt that this diagnosis has made any significant change in who I am or what it is I can do.
This isn’t to say that I’m not affected by autism at all, because I’ve known for quite a while that I have to work in order to keep my emotional feelings about autism to a reasonable level. Even though I’ve always had difficulty connecting with others, understanding other people’s needs, expressing my needs or even realizing that other people’s feelings matter as much as mine do, I feel that I’ve gotten a lot better at understanding these important social factors than I was in the past. Thanks to various school counselors and therapists I have met and seen that various times in my life, I now have solid friendships and I can function well in actual work environments.
I consider myself lucky and fortunate to have met people patient enough to work with me in order to show me the things I needed to learn to become a functioning member of society. Yet I feel that autism isn’t just something that I’ve had to carry around. I feel that because I have autism, I have been inspired to be the creative writer and artistic person that I am today. I feel as though I often see things that many people often overlook, or see things in ways that other people might not think of as a possible way to see them. A good example of this is my early fascination with seeing faces in telephone poles and my ongoing fascination with maps.
When it comes to maps, I am very good at reading them, and I always have a good sense of where I currently am. I’m excellent at directions, and I have a great memory of where I have been, and where it is that I am going. One interesting thing about maps is that I like to draw on older maps a lot, and even draw my own maps as pieces of artwork. Naturally, I usually draw maps of places I have been to and have visited firsthand, with Interstate freeways, highway signs and the sign numbers playing a significant role in my many various map artworks.
One last thing I would like to mention is my excellent memorization skills overall. When it comes to historical facts, musical and/or movie trivia, I remember a lot of what I see and read, and can bring it up at any moment. I am autistic, and I’m just like you.
Calvin Nye, 23, Camarillo
My first artistic creation was a paper silhouette animated dinosaur that I cut out of memo papers lying on my teacher’s desk while she was talking on the phone in May 1994. Since then, I have always been fascinated with writing stories and illustrating them. When I was in elementary school, my peer tutors would write my stories and I would do the illustrations. Both my parents have art backgrounds and I was exposed to art museums and artists all my life. Our house was full of original art, books on various artists and collections of comic illustrators. My name, Calvin, is a tribute to the popular cartoon strip Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson, and my parents have copies of all his books, which I scoured at a very young age. Additionally, I was influenced by my exposure to various animated styles; Disney films, Transformer cartoons, and Ren & Stimpy, that my father and I regularly re-enacted. My ability to speak and communicate was enhanced by reciting lines from various episodes of these shows. I learned to read so I could enjoy comic books, and attribute my art and success to the variety of exposure I had to the art and animation that I grew up with. I love sitting in my living room and studying art books of the works of Seymour Fleishman, George Harriman, R. Crumb, Bill Watterson and others. One of my goals is to educate the world about autism and also show that whether you are disabled or not, you can still become a positive role model. I hope to create this comic very soon cause it not only will help me to follow my dream as a comic artist, but also to promote autism awareness.
I loved the Fleischer Superman and started collecting comics of Superman and other superheroes. I attended my first ComicCon in San Diego when I was 8 years old, and have returned 11 times since then. Comics and cartoons are a big part of my life, and I continue to be influenced by them.
I was diagnosed with autism at a very young age. I had major difficulties socializing and processing information even before kindergarten, but I was drawing stuff with markers and pencils. I created a few characters that are based on other shows and some of my favorite comic book heroes. I started creating my own characters and giving them their own superhero stories — the typical doing the right thing against bad guys, or just writing stories about everyday life. This creative endeavor helped me develop social skills with peers throughout my years at school. At the age of 7, I knew I wanted to become a comic book artist or a cartoonist. I took lessons in drawing and animation, and took my portfolio to ComicCon for critiques by professionals. Additionally, I have sought feedback from variousartists throughout Ventura and Los Angeles County. These interactions have helped me connect with people in the industry and have helped me to create new and fresh ideas.
Drawing has helped me get to know other people because of our mutual interest in my making new characters and writing stories. I have an illustrating business in which I draw characters based on descriptions people have given me. This has helped me to improve my communication skills and increase my ability to socialize with others as we discuss the ideas that they want me to create in my stories for them.
My dream to become an artist has also given me the drive to create a new comic and show it to the public. My first comic book is titled Ricky the Fangirl Killer. While I am working on the second in the series of Ricky, I am developing a new comic book about a superhero that is diagnosed with autism, The Incredible Joe Hero. I feel that previous stories depicting characters with autism have not shown a positive role model in their characterizations. One of my goals is to educate the world about autism and show that, even with a disability, you can become a positive role model. I hope creating this comic will help me to follow my dream of becoming a successful comic artist while promoting autism awareness.
Frank Louis Allen, 31, United Kingdom
As a child and all through school, I would have a pencil in hand and a pad. I do not seem to have memories of talking to other children except my brothers and sister as a child, but what I have got are memories of painting with other children in the short space of time I attended infant school. During social occasions I would sit silently with a pad, and children would come and ask me about the pictures. I have always not been socially anxious when drawing because the part of me that worries about such things is busy, otherwise occupied.
By the time I reached middle school I could draw realistically. I would doodle through every lesson and have since realized the importance of this since my diagnosis. The psychiatrist at Cambridge reassure me that this is a good thing, a coping mechanism. Not that I really need the reassurance of this, but sometimes people judge you as being distant, not taking part because of this, but in reality it is my gateway intobeing present and taking information in. I still use this today at meetings and staff training days with impunity.
I always knew there was an imbalance. I was able to draw things that other people would struggle to learn to draw, but it was only accessible through relaxing and not really letting the conscious side of my brain get in the way. Whenever I would try to draw by a taught method and concentrate the picture would be substandard at best, but when relaxed, I would concentrate, on a small area, never taking in the whole, and when I pulled out it would just be right. It is not a learned skill but a confidence in the abilities of my subconscious mind.
I was diagnosed with PDD-NOS autism more than a year ago, and this just strengthened the realizations that I needed to follow something I already had a natural skill and interest in. Otherwise, I would be forever fighting an uphill battle of anxiety and failure. I had tried graphic design and found the anxiety of trying to work out what someone wanted to just be too much. In November of last year, after sustaining a serious back injury, I stumbled upon my abstract art. Completely free and unconstrained, I sit and draw and let the art lead the show. I feature and sell this work from my blog site www.frankart.co.uk, which in just six months now has 4,200 followers.
I also have a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which will take my vision over the next two decades, but I am determined to keep creating art in some form. I see the autism and the eye disease as things that seriously shape the path of my art, but they are unable to block its flow.
Frank Louis Allen’s drawing digitally displayed in Times Square in New York City.
Dani Bowman, 17, La Canada
Powerlight Animation Studios is an animation company that I started when I was 11 years old. Someday soon it will be like Nickelodeon or Disney Studios, but employing mostly people on the [autism] spectrum as I know how creative we can be.
I started doing picture books and comics when I was 5 or 6 years old. I began experimenting with various software applications. When I was 11, I went to live with my aunt and uncle. At that time I showed them what I had done and my desire to have my own animation company. My aunt told me that I needed a five-year plan and a name for the company, and that I should register it. My aunt and uncle began to help me with professional animation software, and were very surprised at how quickly I learned it. Powerlight Animation Studios booked its first commercial job animating sequences from the music video “The Cave” for the band Arrest My Sister, and after that, illustrating the anti-bullying books Danny and Goliath and Richie and Goliath for Picalata Press and Joey Travolta.
I now have a network of other artists and animators with autism that I work with around the country. I recently won a grant from Spark Action that will help me further my dream of creating employment opportunities for others with autism at Powerlight Animation Studios. I believe that most autistics have raw talent; the trick is to have the families help develop that talent and turn it into a self-supporting career.
I’ve always drawn and created; I was actually drawing before I was speaking. I had a language delay until I was 5 years old. I think in pictures, and spoken language is still difficult for me. I love creating characters. I have about 800 original characters and eight different series of my own. The first series I created was called “Gemstar and Friends,” followed by “The Adventures of Captain Yuron,” about a character that accidentally falls through a black hole and ends up saving his new friends from the pesky villain malaria.
I also speak out against bullying. People with autism are four times more likely to be bullied than their non-autistic siblings. I’ve been bullied and teased because of my disability, and so have many others.
I feel that it’s important to demonstrate the special abilities that people with autism have, and I enjoy inspiring others with autism to follow their dreams, look beyond the challenges of their disability and focus on the positive elements of their personalities. When confronted with a diagnosis of autism for their child, many parents are frightened and a bit overwhelmed, and wondering what the future will bring. I want them to know that it won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile is!
Dani Bowman has created around 800 original characters and she also started her own animation company, Powerlight Animation Studios, when she was 11 years old.
PEOPLE WITH AUTISM OFTEN FUNCTION in a reality free from societal expectations, free of the limited notions of how “the world is supposed to be” and how “we are supposed to be.” It is this lack of societal bias that allows many on the spectrum to reside outside the artificial boxes society creates. This can result in unique points of reference and highly novel renderings of subject material. People on the spectrum may have highly sophisticated spatial, tactile, musical or mathematical intelligence. These intelligences can serve as focal points from which creativity emerges. Hypersensitivity to various stimuli can enhance their creativity, as can repetitive behaviors. Autistic people often come to enjoy sharing their art with others, and it becomes a way for them to connect to the outside world. More importantly, art allows the autistic person to connect within himself or herself. It can serve as a powerful tool to process the inner climate of perplexing thoughts and emotions, giving shape and color to his or her world. Parents often express concern about their autistic children being seen as they are labeled, rather than for the depth and breadth of who they are. Art can be a bridge for many of our children to be seen beyond their labels. It can also be a bridge from our world to theirs.
— Debra Hosseini, author of The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions and Artism: The Art of Autism: Shattering Myths. Hosseini is the co-founder of The Art of Autism.
VCReporter and Westside ArtWalk in association with The Art of Autism present “On the Spectrum: Art and Autism” a group show on Saturday and Sunday, July 21 and 22, featuring visual art, book signings, speakers and resources, at 576 E. Main St. (formerly PURE Life and Home). For more information and a speaker schedule, visit www.westsideartwalk.org or www.the-art-of-autism.com.
“Angel” by Kevin Hosseini and J. Dan Gibbs was created for the documentary ARTS: A film about Possibilities, Disabilities and the Arts. It will be auctioned during Westside ArtWalk with proceeds going to The Art of Autism foundation.
GET INVOLVEDThe Autism Society of Ventura County in collaboration with the Ventura County SELPA and other partners announces a conference for families and professionals interested in autism. The theme is “Autism Across the Lifespan” and the keynote speaker is Jerry Newport, whose autobiographical book “Mozart and the Whale” was made into a movie by the same name. Many breakout sessions will be co-presented by a parent and a professional.
The conference will be held on Nov.3, at the VCOE Conference Center, 5100 Adolfo Road, Camarillo. Tentative cost: $30. Registration will begin Aug. 1, at www.venturacountyselpa.com. For more information, contact Barbara Rush at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 437-1560.