Feb. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Absolute Gallery spotlights autistic artists


When Scott Fargus was young, his mother, Esther Onaga, says he started sketching as a way to communicate without using language. His early artwork included drawings of stick figures falling down. Today, the recent Okemos High School graduate’s paintings are bright and bold and often labeled by others as “abstract” or resembling the Cubist style of Pablo Picasso. “His artwork is affirmation that we all come with gifts,” Onaga says.

On Sunday, Fargus and his mother celebrated those gifts at the opening reception of Absolute Gallery’s “Autism: Communication through Art,” an exhibit featuring colored pencil, crayon, acrylic and watercolor work by eight students with autism from throughout Michigan.

“Autism is such a popular buzz word lately, and it’s my hopes to show people, through art, what it’s all about,” said Kathy Holcomb, owner of Absolute Gallery.

Holcomb was inspired to host an exhibit showcasing artists with autism after working with an intern with Asperger’s disorder, a milder variant of autism, four years ago. Absolute hosted an art show for the intern, who is an active artist, which Holcomb said was a success. “After a year and a half, she was able to function at a regular job,” Holcomb said. “She changed a lot through art, especially from the gratification of knowing people wanted her art. That’s stuck in my mind ever since.”

Many of the parents and teachers who urged their child or student to take part in the exhibit hope it will give them independence and a way to earn money that could lead to a successful life outside of group homes. Onaga said when her son was young, she wasn’t sure what he would be when he grew up and didn’t always have a lot hope. “All you can do is follow their lead,” Onaga said.

Anthony Stornant Collar, a student at Haslett High School, draws in a style reminiscent of Charles Schultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip. Another artist, 20-year-old Shawn Napier, a student at Burger School for Students with Autism, submitted pictures of anime characters that he “came up with from imagination.” Kyle Kieffer, of Fowler High School, draws realistic pictures of trucks and tractors. The youngest artist featured in the exhibit, 10-yearold Jasmine Bond, creates work entirely from logos, which Holcomb said is not an uncommon subject for people with autism. “Think of the Kmart logo, a Ritz cracker box or a bag of Cheetos,” she said. “These kids draw what they see around them.”

Many of the artists began working at young age. Eddie Brown, of Saginaw, 17, started drawing when he was 3. “When Eddie was 3, he picked up a pen and picked up a train and just drew it on paper. This is his God-given gift,” said his mother, Martha Brown.

Trains are still Brown’s favorite subjects, and he dreams of one-day designing trains and becoming a locomotive engineer. In the meantime, Brown spends his days drawing. His next project, per request of his parents, is to draw their portrait. “One thing I always say is, most sons want to grow up to be like their father, but I want to be like my son,” said Eddie Brown’s father, Joe Brown.

Many of the artists have work for sale, a decision Holcomb left for the parents and guardians of the artists. A couple artists have cards, prints and calendars on display as well as paintings.

Okemos resident and retired Michigan State University professor Ida Stockman bought an several cards and prints on Sunday to support Fergus. Stockman, who has worked with autistic students, has known Fergus and his family for a year. Many who came to the exhibit were family friends, offering support, while others had never been at an exhibit featuring autistic artists before. One such first timer was Jody Applegate, of Lansing, who also bought a card by Fergus titled, “A Puzzled Man,” and planned to buy one of his prints. “I like his use of color and simplicity of design,” Applegate said.

Holcomb has already begun planning next year’s “Autism: Communication through Art” exhibit. She plans to extend the run time and hopes more artists from across Michigan will participate and submit art. “We want to encourage these artists and bring awareness to the broad spectrum disorder that is autism,” Holcomb said.

Autism: Communication through Art

February Absolute Gallery, 307 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing Hours: 11
a.m. - 6 p.m Tuesday & Wednesday 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Thursday &
Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Saturday & Sunday (517) 482-8845