|Autistic Artists Share a Gift From the HeArt|
By Lydia Sprague
While autism seems to be getting a lot more publicity lately, with Hollywood stars like Jenny McCarthy speaking out about their own autistic children, and popular television shows featuring characters with the disorder, many people don’t know what exactly autism is. A couple of Seattle artists are doing their best to change that and expose the vividly whimsical side of the autistic community while they’re at it.
Michael Tolleson and Jack Carl Anderson began painting in June 2010 and had a lot of success. They found themselves working at a gallery next door to an organization for autistic youths and decided they wanted to help those kids out.
“Sometimes, the universe puts you where you need to be: We were in the right place at the right time,” Tolleson said.
And so they started HeART of the Spectrum, a gallery and community center in Pioneer Square for autistic youths. It offers one-on-one classes for artists who fall along the autism spectrum of disorders and then displays the art. The gallery also pushes to have the art displayed throughout Seattle and help get the names of talented autistic artists out into the art world.
“The structure is geared toward the individual, so we work one-on-one with each person that comes in,” Anderson said. “We started with youths, and we’re now expanding to adults.”
Because art can be the only form of expression for some of the artists who work at the gallery, Anderson and Tolleson say they strive to help them gain understanding through exposing their art to the greater community.
‘The whimsical side’
What most people know as autism is actually a spectrum of developmental disorders. Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
The CDC estimates that one in every 88 children has been diagnosed with a form of autism. The disorder can manifest in many ways and ranges along the spectrum from very mild to very severe. Those with milder symptoms may be diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Those with more severe symptoms, including significant language and behavioral delays, are diagnosed with “classic” autism.
There are others who fall in between: They may be diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder–Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), meaning they have some symptoms but not all.
Although those living among the spectrum may have a disorder, they probably don’t see themselves as disabled. Many choose to see the bright side of life, and that joy is found on display at HeART of the Spectrum’s gallery.
“What seems to be a surprise to the outside community about the Spectrum community is how happy it is,” Tolleson said. “When viewing art by someone who’s on the spectrum, I think anyone can take away that there’s lots of color and life. And for someone that’s on the spectrum, they may not show it on their face or communicate verbally what’s inside.”
He continued, “By showing the art, we’re showing the best side of the autistic community. In many ways, the Spectrum community is seen as being non-functioning and having other traits that may or may not be true. But when we show the art, we’re showing the whimsical side.”
Tolleson spoke of a 13-year-old student who told him he wanted to be smart like his sister, who is not autistic.
“What art did for him is, now he has an art and a talent he can take hold of and a way to be recognized,” Tolleson said.
The need to create
The students produce art of all kinds from paper cut-outs to collages, from finger paintings to charcoal drawings. Generally, they are creating something that was already inside of them.
“Many of the artists are nonverbal, so art is their form of communication; these artists that are on the spectrum are the real outsider artists,” Tolleson said.
“The art isn’t necessarily an expression — sometimes, it’s just [the artist's] world,” Tolleson explained, saying that compulsive behavior can be a common trait in people with autism. “There is a compulsion to create: They have something inside that has to get out, that has to be created. But once it’s out, it’s not necessarily sentimental.”
The art produced by Spectrum artists may vary in shape and form, but according to Tolleson and Anderson, there are some defining characteristics.
“One trait it all has in common is how direct they are, and the second thing, they all share is how bright the colors are,” Anderson said, adding that directness is a trait among people on the spectrum. This is why HeART of the Spectrum has a very important rule for its teachers: When a student speaks, it’s important.
“You see a painting of trees. When you stand away from the painting, it’s a forest, it’s a grove. It’s giving a simple, clear message,” Tolleson said. “Everything is very direct and very linear.
“When people want to get involved [in volunteering] we check them out to see if they have a good background in teaching or working with kids, but not necessarily kids with autism,” he added. “What they really need to understand, though, is that when anyone that we’re mentoring speaks — because it is a Spectrum trait — if they say something, it means something.”
Sharing the ‘gift’
Though HeART of the Spectrum was launched in July 2011, it has had a lasting impact on a lot of people, especially its founders.
“You get a gift; you give a gift,” might be Tolleson’s life motto.
He and Anderson decided to start HeART of the Spectrum after seeing the autistic kids next door. Because they had done well with their own artwork, they were able to open the gallery and community center on their own.
The center gets no outside funding — only profits from the sales of the artwork on display at the gallery.
“We’re definitely not in it for our pocketbooks. We’re in it from our hearts and because it needs to be done,” Tolleson said.
The gallery started out as a way for two outsiders to do something good for the autistic community and help get exposure for Spectrum artists. However, when Anderson began working with the students, he said he felt an understanding and connection to the kids in an interesting way. Tolleson suggested he take an evaluation, and they discovered Anderson has Asperger syndrome.
The gallery continues to expand. It is displaying more and more art from around the world, as well as art from its own students.
“When we started out, the gallery displayed only local art, but now, we have two artists from the East Coast,” Anderson said. “Soon, we will have art from an artist in Australia who recently won a stamp contest.”
And the art of students is moving beyond the gallery’s walls, as well. In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, the Starbucks in Pioneer Square is displaying artwork by autistic artists, including a couple of HeART of the Spectrum students, and a piece by Anderson himself. And a recently published book, “Art of Autism 2012,” features art by Anderson and some of the students.
For more information on HeART of the Spectrum and art in the Spectrum community, visit the gallery’s website (heartofthespectrum.com).