Rainbows and monsters
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
Show spotlights artwork of autistic students
Talking about autism is like walking into a hall of mirrors. You can easily get turned around and bump into yourself.
At a Sunday reception at Lansing’s Absolute Gallery, I met Scott Fergus, a recent graduate of Okemos High School. Like many autistic people, Scott avoids eye contact, gives very short answers and speaks in a monotone that takes some getting used to.
Talking with Scott, I slipped easily into the narrow view of autism as a developmental disability that impairs communication.
Then I saw the fish on the wall.
Fergus’ pulsating art commands a bright swath in the gallery’s current exhibit of art by autistic students.
A craggy oak in Meridian Township’s Ferguson Park reaches into a stained-glass sky. Musicians toot strange horns from high windows in an undulating alleyway out of “The Arabian Nights,” by way of M.C. Escher.
Disability? I longed to see the world through his eyes.
Fergus said there was no model for the Arabian Nights painting.
“It was just a picture I made,” he said.
His dad, Ted, seemed in awe.
“Where do the colors come from?” Ted said. “As far as I know, he’s not dropping acid.”
In Scott Fergus’ favorite painting, a rainbow vibrates over Wardcliff Elementary in East Lansing.
“I made that a long time ago,” Scott said. It’s only been four years, but he looked almost wistful about the old school.
“I don’t think he feels he has a disability,” Ted said of Scott. “In some socalled primitive cultures, they would see him as the more enlightened person of all of us, because he’s seeing things we don’t see.”
Most gallery receptions have two kinds of wine, red and white. This one had a generous plate of chocolate chip cookies and a cavernous bowl of M&Ms.
Fighting the heady chocolate smell, Absolute Gallery owner Kathy Holcomb talked about “Autism: Communication Through Art,” now in its second year.
“You can’t go by a billboard without seeing autism,” Holcomb said. Many sources claim that one in 150 people have some form of autism.
“It’s a big thing,” Holcomb said, “but let’s show what people can do with it, not just talk about what they can’t do.”
Holcomb was inspired to do the show four years ago after showing art by an intern with autism. There are nine artists in this year’s show, and Holcomb already has people signed up for next year.
The show isn’t all rainbows. At Sunday’s reception, Ben Davis, a sophomore at Charlotte High School, stood proudly next to a display case of insectoid horrors made of ceramic, clay, wire and acrylic paint. Davis caught me looking into the blood-red mouth of a spidery thing with a lot of eyes.
“That’s just the baby,” he said, with suave glee. “You should see the mother.”
Davis, 16, has been into art since he was 4 years old.
He grew up watching horror movies, and always wanted to make his own creatures.
“I pulled them right out my head — design, color and everything,” he said.
Davis wants to bring the creatures to life in his own films some day.
“Violence, action, mindless horror — that’s what I’m into,” he said, grinning over a Goth goatee.
Autism is a “spectrum” condition, with almost infinite degrees of disability and super-ability.
Monster man Davis was so sly and gregarious you could see him pitching his beasties in Hollywood next week. By contrast, Charlie Worthington, a sophomore at East Lansing High School, sat quietly amid the buzz of the reception.
When I asked him about his work, he kept looking straight ahead.
“The still life is post-Impressionist,” he explained, pointing at a Cezanne-like tableau of wine, bread and fruit. The others weren’t still at all. “That’s T. Rex and nanotyrannus,” he said, pointing at two rampaging dinosaurs.
Charlie’s mother, Leslie, said art has given her son “a chance to have a special identity” at East Lansing High School, where he has created murals of woodland and underwater scenes. “When people see his talent they see him differently,” Leslie said.Some of the art at
Absolute will jump to the Lansing Center March 19 to augment an
appearance by motherand-son California filmmakers Keri Bowers and
Bowers, a mainstay on the autism speaking circuit, called art “the key that unlocks the door” for many autistic young people.
“The person who he was meant to be emerged through the arts,” Bowers said.
“How do you think it feels?” he snaps when his mother asks him how he feels about being autistic.
Is it normal to be a journalist, taking pictures of people and asking them questions?
One day last week, I went to Absolute Gallery to take some pictures of the artwork there, and heard a booming voice.
Collar’s drawings feature whimsical people or animals, many of which sport exactly three hairs.
Michelle Angel, a job coach contracted from state rehab services, helps him get around.
I asked Angel what art does for Collar.
“It’s hard to know,” she said. “But see how he straightens up when he comes in.”
Anthony let me snap a few pictures of him arranging the cards, then abruptly turned the tables.
“Digital camera,” he said to Angel.
Angel went back to the car, came back with a camera, and handed it to Collar.
“First name,” Collar said to me. “Spell it. Last name. Spell it. Date of birth.”
He aimed the camera at me.
“Ready? Smiling. Eyebrows up.”
He took a
“Smiling, please. Hand.” He
Angel explained that Anthony does this to almost everyone he meets.
“He has photos of hundreds of people in the exact same two poses,” she said. “I’m not sure what his plan is.”
“We go home, back to car,” Anthony said to Angel. “Front seat.”
"Autism: Communication through Art"
Through March 31 Absolute Gallery 307 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing MI (517) 482-8845
“Normal People Scare Me”