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Wednesday, March 10,2010

Rainbows and monsters

Show spotlights artwork of autistic students

by Lawrence Cosentino

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
Taylor Cross.


Bowers, a mainstay on the autism speaking circuit, called art “the key that unlocks the door” for many autistic young people.


At
age 1, Bowers recalled, Cross couldn’t stand to be held. Out of
desperation, she put paint on the tips of her son’s fingers and began
to paint on paper with them.


“The person who he was meant to be emerged through the arts,” Bowers said.


Last
year, Bowers and Cross finished a feature film about autism, “Normal
People Scare Me.” Autism advocate Joey Travolta, brother of John
Travolta, helped put the project together.


At
the Lansing Center event, Bowers and Cross will talk about their
adventures making the film and show a 20-minute clip. Later that day,
Bowers will hold workshops for parents of autistic children.


In
“Normal People Scare Me,” Cross interviews scores of autistic people,
mostly children, to build a generous mosaic of diverse experiences and
attitudes. But it’s not a heartwarming Movie of the Week, thanks
largely to Cross’ tart personality.


“How do you think it feels?” he snaps when his mother asks him how he feels about being autistic.


“Normal
people scare me when they think they’re normal,” a teenage girl says in
the film. “Because in my opinion there’s no such thing as normal.”


Part
of what makes autism such a hall of mirrors is that many of its colors
blend into the common rainbow of human problems. Who hasn’t had dif
ficulty relating to other people or sticking to a task? Who doesn’t
have behavioral tics, obsessive hobbies or aversions to certain foods
or clothes?


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.


Anthony
Stornant Collar, a 23-year-old student at Haslett High School, had
arrived to restock and straighten a rack of greeting cards made from
his cartoons.


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.”


So
that’s what this feels like, I thought.


He aimed the camera at me.
“Glasses off.” I obeyed.


“Ready? Smiling. Eyebrows up.”


He took a
photo, then drew back for a full-body shot.


“Smiling, please. Hand.” He
turned his right palm outward and fanned his fingers into a starfish
shape until I did the same, then took the picture.


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”


Keri
Bowers and Taylor Cross, speakers 9:30 a.m. Friday, March 19 Lansing
Center Free to public Workshops “Mapping Transitions to Your Child’s
Future” 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m. “What Professionals Need to Know” 3-4 p.m.
Lansing Center Contact Judy Hazel (517) 346-8238 or register for
workshops at www.surveymonkey.com/s/5Y78VC5


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