Santa Brink was in her seven-month-old gallery, Artworks the Galleria of Fine Art at Fort Wayne’s Jefferson Pointe, when in walked a tall young man, with longish curly brown hair and glasses.
With a soft voice and a British accent, he told her his name was Frank Louis Allen and said he’d recently moved to Fort Wayne.
“He said, ‘I’m an artist, and this is what I do. And oh, I’m on the autism scale,’ ” she says.
Other gallery owners might not have known how to react. For Brink, however, it was second nature. She’d spent many years working with children with learning disabilities and other special needs as a teacher and educational consultant to parents and schools.
She knew people with autism could be quite creative and shouldn’t be dismissed because of what some might see as a disability.
After looking at his fanciful drawings, she quickly welcomed Allen into her growing cadre of exhibiting artists. His work is now included in one of the gallery’s current exhibits, “Expressions: Artists and Autism,” which also features the work of potter Sean Patrick Gray of Indianapolis, who also has autism.
The show continues until March 8.
Brink, 65, says she wants to continue to open a portion of the gallery to artists with what she calls “exceptionalities.” Among them might be people with mental or physical illness, non-traditional learning styles, attention deficit disorder or other circumstances that might seem to limit their lives.
For those with autism, a condition that affects how they perceive and relate to their environment, art can be a window into and out from their world, she says.
“How they experience life from the day they were born is different from the so-called normal person,” she says. “We get to see a piece of that.”
Frank Louis Allen
One recent day, Frank Louis Allen, 33, was standing in front of a 3-by-5-foot canvas at Artworks, black marker in hand, working on a new drawing.
From the top right corner peers a face – of a lion, Allen says, but it also might be that of an old man. To its left, there’s the head and wing of an eagle, though it might be an owl.
Toward the center sits the head of a horse, and toward the bottom right, three squids seem to have settled on the head of a person like a string mop.
Like in most of his work, where images morph one into another, Allen is allowing this drawing to unfold. He says he doesn’t plan anything ahead of time – that would make him too anxious, he says.
He just focuses on a small piece of the drawing at a time.
“It’s not always focusing really hard on what I want (to draw). It’s relaxing and letting it come out,” he says.
A native of Biggleswade, England, in Bedfordshire between London and Cambridge, Allen says he struggled through school without being diagnosed – dreading homework, terrified of exams, missing 20 percent of the school year at times because he’d become physically ill from anxiety.
It wasn’t until he volunteered at a day nursery where his sister worked and saw children with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, that he recognized himself.
“I could see it was me,” he says, adding he was diagnosed in 2011. Further tests found he was in the top 1 percent for visual cognition and had good verbal skills but did poorly in other areas, such as planning.
“I’d drawn some in school, but after (graduating from) school I didn’t draw, really. I was always worried about what I put on the paper,” he says.
That changed when he was laid up with a back injury in 2011 and began drawing for his own amusement. It freed him, he says.
“It looked like I was putting things in on purpose, but I was just drawing,” he says. “I think it is your subconscious perceptions – it’s all done behind the scenes. I think people don’t put enough trust in that.”
Brink says it’s hard to categorize Allen’s art. Much is done in black and white, though some contain splashes of color. Most is not depictive, but some works resemble comic book or tattoo art, fantasy illustration or Japanese anime. Others, more abstract, feel Picasso-esque.
“I’m sure it’s his reality, in a lot of ways, where his mind flits,” Brink says.
Allen says that “a lot of times, people see things I don’t see,” in his work. He says he likes music in the background and doesn’t mind being surrounded by people and talking to them while he draws.
He’s even done a webcast while drawing. He and his wife, Kara, a Fort Wayne resident who met Allen online through an autism support community, communicate with other artists with autism through a Facebook page. Allen also writes a blog.
Still, it’s hard for him to put his finger on how he feels when he creates.
“I know I don’t feel angry or confused – I’m just drawing,” he says. “But it’s probably a good reflection of what’s going on inside me at the time.”
Sean Patrick Gray
Meet 31-year-old Sean Patrick Gray, and he’s likely dressed in his blue-and-white Indianapolis Colts jacket.
He’s a big Colts fan and built tall and strapping, like a lineman. But he’s actually a potter, his strength and his large hands serving him well in turning lumps of clay into sleekly simple vessels.
Sylvia Gray, a painter and textile artist, says her son struggled with sensory and communication problems related to autism throughout his childhood.
He was reactive to sounds, getting upset by being around too many people or noises, she says. Most people couldn’t understand what he said, and vice versa because of auditory-processing problems. He tended to get easily distracted and frustrated, and sometimes he would lash out as he tried to control too much stimuli.
Early on, Gray started him in special-needs art classes at an Indianapolis arts center.
“It was the only place I could take him where I wouldn’t get called to come get him,” she says with a smile. “He seemed to do OK there.”
Later, when he reached high school, “One of the few classes he could take with other students was sculpture.” Though he had difficulties with touch in general, he found out he liked working with his hands, and especially the feel of clay.
Since then, Sean Gray has found a mentor in the Indianapolis area, rakuartist/social worker Rick Greiner, with whom he’s been working since 2003 and who calls his student “absolutely delightful.”
Gray has grown a serious interest in making wheel-thrown vessels – plates, bowls, mirrors and vases for traditional Japanese flower arrangements called Ikebana. He sometimes plants stalks of lucky bamboo in the Japanese-inspired vessels, some of which are at Artworks.
A recent addition to his repertoire is a large goblet – he gave one to a priest at his church, St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Indianapolis, to be used as a chalice during Mass. Also recently, Gray started doing what he calls “double pulls,” which allow him to make bigger bowl sizes.
One of his sculptural installations, a collection of disks, is on permanent display at Community Hospital North in Indianapolis, having been commissioned for the neonatal unit waiting area.
Gray, who didn’t speak until his was 4, rarely communicates in full sentences. But he nonetheless goes to art fairs, where he enjoys meeting and talking with people. He also likes demonstrating his work, as he did at Artworks on Jan. 26. With Greiner, he has taught classes to other people with special needs.
Much to his delight, he’s found that his pieces, many with a soft seafoam green-and-blue matte glaze, sell.
“People like it,” he says of his work, which he markets as Seanware.
Though her son is “a creature of habit” who likes a set schedule and to do things the same way, Sylvia Gray says he’s finding those traits helpful in his art, where consistency is important.
“I don’t think language is his first way of communicating,” she says. Art, she adds, has helped him find his place in the world.
“The funny thing is that things can happen for him and it’s not like he really seeks it out,” she says. “He keeps getting more and more opportunities.
“His pieces are getting more refined now as he goes on and gets better. I think it (making pottery) keeps him grounded.”