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On the importance of coloring outside the lines

Langston Gardner was never much for coloring inside the lines.

As a child, Gardner’s mother, Barbara, recalled, he would fill every inch of his bedroom walls with drawings of old-fashioned telephones and televisions. Early in Langston’s life, she came to accept frequent paint jobs as a fact of life.

But when presented with a coloring book and crayons, the young artist froze. It had something to do with artificial limits: the concreteness of the pre-printed lines somehow switched off his creativity. But in the calm and quiet of his bedroom – an environment free of the constraints, rules and instructions that defined the rest of his life – his artistic talents shone through.

It’s still that way for Gardner, 32, who was diagnosed with autism as a child. But his studio has moved from his childhood bedroom to the art room at Autism Services Buffalo location on Elmwood Avenue, and his canvas has shrunk a bit, from vast expanses of drywall to square canvases that reflect the same objects and ideas that captivated him when he was younger.

A selection of those canvases now hangs in an exhibition alongside the abstract paintings of Kyle Butler in a light-filled gallery in Autism Services, on view by appointment through Sept. 3. The show is the latest in an innovative series that pairs participants in the organization’s Arts Work program with established professional artists from the local community.

About 90 other adults with autism and about 100 children create work in an unstructured setting as part of Autism Services’ successful Art Works program, launched by the organization’s Executive Director Veronica Federiconi in 2002.

“There are certain goals that they have to address throughout their day because of state mandates, whether it’s education or in our adult programs,” she said. “The arts are the times that I want for them to just feel like there’s nothing imposed on them. It’s a time for them to do what they want to do, whether it’s in music, in our dance and yoga area or in the visual arts.”

In a day of regulated activity, state-mandated educational goals and regimented therapies, art class is the of the few places people with autism have to pursue their own ideas and desires free from direction.

“Historically, people treating people with autism would sort of redirect or try to extinguish the repetitiveness of things, communicating about the same thing,” Federiconi said. “For me the goal was, if this is of interest to them, how can we allow them to continue to communicate about what’s interesting to them in a way that’s sort of productive and meaningful?”

Barbara Gardner said that Langston stopped drawing and painting a few years ago after the death of his grandfather – a change in the normal routine often poses huge challenges for those with autism – but she’s gratified he has returned to it.

“I was amazed when I went to the exhibit to see that Langston had done so many paintings, so evidently he has come full-circle and he’s back in a groove he is enjoying, because if he didn’t enjoy it he never would have done that many drawings,” she said. “And I’m thrilled.”

On a recent morning, Gardner, Butler and Federiconi gathered in the light-filled gallery space to reflect on the joint exhibition. Gardner’s paintings – thick letters spelling out “telephone” over and over again in bright blue paint, networks of indecipherable characters struggling to become language – are in some ways visual representations of his speech patterns and his interests. But they’re also much more than that.

“They’ve got a really concrete design sense, and the off-kilter placement is something that the most educated contemporary art student would do, that would be the result of seven years of school. Whereas Langston was just like, ‘No it’s better this way,’ ” Butler said of Gardner’s stark, blue-lettered “telephone” painting, which he liked so much that he bought it. “When you wake up in the morning to a phone call, it kind of feels like that.”

There are also some clear affinities between Gardner’s and Butler’s work that have to do with the inability of language to fully express complex ideas and emotions. Whereas in Gardner’s work, letters sometimes criss-cross the canvas without ever becoming words, Butler’s understated abstractions contain lines that criss-cross the canvas without ever becoming identifiable images. Through their paintings, each artist is trying to express something much deeper than language.

“He’s using language, but he’s not necessarily concerned with communicating. You can read it, but you also know that that’s not the point because it’s overwritten so many times,” Butler said. “The noise of my paintings, that was an affinity I saw as well. I didn’t want it to be a clear image. I wanted the lines to act like something but never actually become it.”

For Federiconi and others at Autism Services, the art program is essential because it allows its clients to act like exactly who they are, without having to strive to become something else. The program is not just another kind of therapy for those with autism, but a way for them to live happy and productive lives.

“That’s really what my focus is: How can I give them a quality of life without having to focus on the needs?” Federiconi said. “We know they have needs and those will be taken care of, but they sometimes are taken care of just by addressing their interests.”

And if those interests involve coloring outside the lines? All the better.


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