Above: “Desert Scape A” by Derek “Deek” Dierdricksen (Courtesy of Sydni Jackson/The Current)
By Jessie Eikmann, Features Editor
Over the last few years, autism spectrum disorder has gained enough attention to become more than just a blip on the disability radar screen. Despite all the frequent “awareness” periods and fundraising efforts, however, recognizing the accomplishments of people on the autism spectrum still leaves something to be desired.
Gallery Visio’s latest show “From the Spectrum” works to correct this lack of recognition. The gallery has teamed up with Saint Louis Art for Autism, LLC, a local organization that helps empower children on the spectrum through art. The show, which features the works of artists on the autism spectrum or families of someone on the spectrum, was largely organized by Saint Louis Art for Autism’s founder and University of Missouri—St. Louis alumnus Charles Mooneyham. According to Mooneyham, producing the show was “nothing shy of a spiritual experience. At the opening I met such a wide range of individuals on the spectrum who came to visit the show…It was such a shining example of pride in the purest nature.”
Several of the pieces in “From the Spectrum” are by current students in UMSL’s SUCCEED program. One student-created piece, Eric Stuckmeyer’s “Marionetto,” immediately stands out. While all the other pieces are two-dimensional, “Marionetto” is a 3-D puppet made of pipe cleaners, string, and dowel rods. The piece takes an interesting geometric approach to anatomy, breaking down each limb into a series of looped segments. The parts of the figure are beautifully proportioned and flow together well, demonstrating the tremendous attention to detail that the artist employed to make it.
Other pieces in the gallery illustrate a point made by Stuart Shadwell, the director of Gallery Visio. Shadwell, who is himself on the spectrum, said, “I think that so-called neurotypical people are likely to build up inhibitions about making art and they stop trying … People on the spectrum are less likely to have these inhibitions, so they just go at it, and the results are lively and entertaining.”
Whatever vaguely-defined “sophistication” that neurotypical people may claim these pieces lack, the pieces compensate by creating entire worlds for their pieces. Two examples of these are the works of SUCCEED students Brandon Jones and Nicholas Kaminsky. Jones, in his series of drawings called “Primal,” has developed his own mythos. According to the description next to the drawings, “humans and the mighty dinosaurs live side-by-side and extinction is over rated. At a young age boys and girls are released into the wild to find and tame their own dinosaur while it is at its most lethal age.” That premise is reflected in the tranquil way the person is riding the dinosaur in “Primal III.” The look of contentment on the rider’s face and the way she rides the dinosaur—with as much ease as a surfer would ride a board—indicate the rapport that dinosaur and rider must have established before the picture.
Nicholas Kaminsky took his world-building one step further. This artist accompanies his series “Anubis Jr. Versus Timberwolf” with a three-page story about his world, which he calls “Wolflantis.” The comic book-like panels of the second and third drawings only tell part of Kaminsky’s story, which manages to pack into three short wolf princes and princesses, a royal adviser named Sir Quack, an elaborate plot against a cousin, a dungeon scene, and a black hole. The fleshed-out story line shows that artists on the autism spectrum make their art richer by bringing more imaginative back stories into their work.
Another of the artists in the gallery, Derek “Deek” Diedricksen, channels an unusual interest in his work “Desert Scape A.” Like “Marionetto,” the piece has a striking geometric quality. The shelter is an isosceles triangle with scaled-down articles of furniture and a miniature window on an upper level. The piece reveals Diedricksen’s fascination with tiny houses. His book “Micro Shelters” sits on a table below his artwork so that the viewer can get absorbed in both “Desert Scape A” and the “59 creative cabins, tiny houses, tree houses, and other small structures” inside the book. He manages with two different mediums to integrate the viewer in what might otherwise be dismissed as a mere obscure fixation.
Another piece comments on the nature of autism itself. Pierre L. Owens’ “Autism: The Happy Kingdom” pictures “a family who has autism and engages in unusual acts.” This fictional African-inspired movie poster suggests that people on the spectrum can be happy and whimsical without being “handicapped” by their diagnosis. The piece’s bright colors, exotic masks and costumes, and the written message “No Panic, Right?” at the top all suggest that autism spectrum disorder does not have to mean a life of fear and stigmatization for those who have it.
“From the Spectrum” is on display at Gallery Visio until November 18. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays. For more information about Saint Louis Art for Autism, visit them at saintlouisartforautism.com.