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Artist with autism – and few words – lets his portraits do the talking

Young artist Chaz Buscaglia often chooses stage and screen subjects for his portrait work. They have included Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland and Mae West, and musical artists Bob Marley, Nicki Minaj and Christina Aguilera.

He also is just as likely to clip a photo from a magazine of a largely unknown, fresh-faced model, and treat his artistic process just the same.

“He's not interested in the people for who they are. He doesn't even know most of them,” said Dana Ranke, director of arts programs with Autism Services Inc. “But there's something in the reference that's attracting him. He loves hairstyles. He loves clothing. He loves all kinds of decorative details in a portrait."

Buscaglia is among dozens of those who regularly spend time in one of four Autism Services Inc. art studios scattered across the region – and among the few who have created a body of work deemed exceptional enough to warrant a solo art show. His exhibit, “Recent Portraits,” opens with a free artist reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Argus Gallery, a modern and contemporary gallery at 1896 Niagara St., in Black Rock. All are welcome. The exhibit is open through Feb. 22 by appointment; call 882-8100.

Buscaglia, in his late 20s, has created art since childhood but his work ramped up after he started the Autism Services Adult Day Program in 2014. He soon caught the eye of teaching artist Raisa Mehltretter, who believed his small drawings had the potential to translate to larger paintings.

“It became clear to me that Chaz would benefit from having the studio to himself rather than a group studio environment," Mehltretter said. "I tweaked his schedule and made other changes like playing his favorite jazz and the Beach Boys while he worked, and Chaz flourished after that. Sometimes a few environmental changes are all the artist needs to be successful.”

"Chaz has a great, extensive vocabulary and is verbal, but open-ended questions are a challenge for him," says Dana Ranke, director of arts programs with Autism Services Inc. "Verbal communication is a common challenge for people with autism. At ASI we often use alternative forms of communication (other than verbal) and within the art department, because we are artists ourselves, we are able to observe each artist’s approach, anticipate needs, and offer the right materials and methods to help them create the work they want to make, without using words, if needed. (Photo courtesy of Autism Services Inc. Arts Programs)

Music helped launch a turning point in his work three years ago, when he painted a portrait of Billie Holiday for a group exhibition, “American Music: Paintings Inspired by Jazz and Blues,” at WNED’s Horizons Gallery. It is one of several galleries across the region that display works from artists with Autism Services connections.

“We represent many different artists and they all have different verbal abilities,” Ranke said. “Chaz is verbal, but he doesn't speak very much.” Instead, his art is often a window into his interests and passions.

Most participants in Autism Services art programs paint in acrylic. Buscaglia also uses oil and acrylic paint marker to create his portraits.

“His work is very deliberate, and it’s stylized," Ranke said. “It's simplified but it's expressive. He works on that. He doesn't try to copy the reference. He draws it the way he wants to. He'll redraw it in pencil until he gets everything right: the slant of a nose, the tilt of someone's face. He's interested in color and design and contour lines.”

Autism Services celebrates autism as a culture. Founder and CEO Veronica Federiconi launched the arts programs in 2002. Offerings also include music, theater and movement such as yoga.

“I am interested in letting people explore options and choose what they want to do and what they want to say,” Federiconi said.

Art participants have partnered with professional artists and arts organizations on collaborative projects, mutually helpful learning opportunities and events.

At any given time, the community galleries at the Albright-Knox, Burchfield Penney and other leading art centers have displayed work created in the programs. So, too, have branches in the Buffalo & Erie County Library system, including currently in the Kenilworth branch, Town of Tonawanda; the public spaces at the Huntington Apartments in North Buffalo and elsewhere, as part of the Autism Services art lending program; and Atrium 124 Gallery, part of the Autism Services.

Last year, the program reached a milestone when the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University used its main exhibition hall for a show called “Think Big.”

“At Burchfield and Albright-Knox, we know we're going to be shown in the community space – and we're happy with that,” Ranke said. “But at Castellani, we got the main gallery and we got the space for most of the last year. We were able to highlight individual artists, just like anyone else would have in that space.”

Buscagalia’s exhibit also will be somewhat novel for the program – because the artist plans to attend the opening reception.

"All of our artists have different reasons for creating, but one thing they typically share is that it comes from a pure place,” Ranke said. “They're not calculating 'What are people going to like?' or 'How can I get more followers on Instagram?' They're in the moment. They're inspired. They create and then they walk away. But in recent years, the program has gone on long enough that some of the artists are willing to come to the opening – and enjoy it. That's a wonderful evolution for a program, to see artists grow into their role in the community."

Buscaglia’s parents, Joe and Naomi, and many family friends look forward to being among the exhibit opening guests.

“’We all share in the excitement for Chaz’s accomplishments,” his father said. “It’s simply wonderful.”


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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