Amid challenges, artists with special needs shine
Others may think that people with autism would have a hard time adjusting to daily life, much less make beautiful art and hold exhibits. But various Filipino artists with autism and special needs prove otherwise.
Lorenzo “Enzo” Medina, diagnosed with autism at two years old, started doing arts and crafts one year after. Largely nonverbal, he expresses himself through art. Now 14 years old, he paints animals and objects of nature using oil and acryclic and has been participating in art exhibits.
JA Tan, a 29-year-old Filipino-Canadian artist with autism, has held solo exhibits in Manila and Vancouver, and his work has been commissioned by individuals and companies in Vancouver. His painting Victory was chosen as one of 8 among 200 submissions to United Nations (UN) and issued as a UN stamp. (READ: Artist coping with autism makes it big)
Julyan Harrison, a 23-year-old artist with autism, not only paints but also cleans, farms, cooks, and surfs at his home by the sea in Zambales. Many of his artworks are inspired by the sea. He will be participating in shows and exhibits, including the Fashion Arts Autism Benefit show in New York.
Medina, Tan, and Harrison are just some among many Filipino artists with autism.
They, along with 18 other artists with special needs, are having an April 1-3 art exhibit at Green Sun, Makati, in line with World Autism Awareness Day on April 2. The exhibit will showcase their solo artworks, as well as artworks in collaboration with established artists and student artists. Conceptualized and spearheaded by Rachel Harrison, herself a mother of participating artist with autism Julyan Harrison, the exhibit’s artworks follow the theme “fun and purpose,” highlighting the right of people to find fun and purpose in life amid autism and similar developmental challenges.
The exhibit also raises awareness about people with special needs. “This exhibit showed that with better understanding, love and acceptance, our special needs individuals can become productive members of society. In this exhibit, people would understand that they are truly special not because of their challenges but because they can create something of value and beauty,” Olive Del Rosario-Medina, mother of participating artist Enzo Medina, said emphatically.
Most of the proceeds will go to the construction of a community art center in San Narciso, Zambales. The center will be a training ground for adults with special needs on vocational and artistic skills like art, embroidery, pottery, cooking, and barista training, to help them integrate in society.
“When you’re an adult, it’s important to have a livelihood, to have a job,” Harrison, who will also head the construction of the art center, said. “Let us not discount the special needs community – they are not useless. They can work in hospitals, be part of an art gallery, souvenir shops, and more.”
Collaboration with established artists and student artists
On some of their artworks, Medina, Tan, Harrison and other artists with special needs collaborated with established artists of the Saturday Group. Formed over 40 years ago, the Saturday Group is among the oldest art groups in Manila. Some of the country's National Artists in the Visual Arts, like Vicente Manansala, Carlos “Botong” Francisco, HR Ocampo, and Jose Joya were part of this group.
On the collaboration, artists with special needs started the paintings on the canvas, and the Saturday Group artists finished the artwork.
Saturday Group President Migs Villanueva said their group was amazed with the special needs artists’ artworks. “Their works are so simple yet solid, with so much presence. It's like the images are alive and vibrant, as if innocence and purity have come alive.”
Indeed, parents of some artists attest to the happiness and positive outlook of their children.
Del Rosario-Medina said that her son Enzo is “mostly happy and smiling” when making art.
Rachel Harrison, mother of artist with autism Julyan Harrison, also said Julyan uses bright and bold colors, showing his “happiness and innocent outlook.”
Artist JA Tan also attested to this happiness: “I consider [art] an integral part of my existence as each work is a personal journey of myself with myself, and myself with the world, bringing a feeling of peace and happiness since things become clearer to me through the images and visual pictures before me,” he said.
Harrison also said that the “solidity” in the artworks Villanueva mentioned also came from focus on detail, a common characteristic of some people with autism.
A few student artists like Aika Yamashita also collaborated with both the special needs artists and the Saturday Group. “It was a fun experience and a privilege to meet and collaborate with different artists...it’s the kind of experience I will never forget,” Yamashita said, who worked on a painting with special needs artist Enzo Medina and Saturday Group artist Carlo Ongchangco.
While student artist Yohan Villar was not able to collaborate with any of the special needs artists, he said that the cause was very personal to him.
“My mother had German measles when she conceived me and I was assumed to be autistic or handicapped by all the doctors my parents consulted, and they recommended abortion,” Villar revealed. His parents pushed through with the pregnancy, and Villar was found to have no complications.
Thus, seeing artist with autism Julyan Harrison felt like a “divine meeting” for him.
“Julyan and I are both 23 years old. We both needed to find something to express ourselves in effective ways,” Villar said, alluding to their shared love for art. “When I was younger, I drew cars because I liked speed. Julyan draws fish and airplanes – I kind of get him wanting that feeling of weightlessness.”
Art as its own reward
While exhibits, recognition, and collaborations with seasoned artists give them pride, parents of artists with autism agree that the real reward is the act of making art itself and how it has impacted their children’s lives.
“Since Enzo is non-verbal, doing art allowed him to express his thoughts and feelings. It provided him meaning and purpose,” Del Rosario-Medina said.
She added that Enzo has also “come a long way from being a hyperactive child who has to be taught how to sit for long periods” to someone who paints for hours. “Any special needs mom would agree that this is truly a milestone!” she added.
Harrison said that her son Julyan no longer throws tantrums. “This time, he pours out his energy through the colors,” she said.
She added that special needs artists like her son have “found fun and purpose through art.”
Catch the solo artworks of these artists with special needs and their collaborative artworks with Saturday Group artists on April 1-3, 4 pm onwards at Green Sun, Makati. Also collaborating with the Saturday Group are student artists from De La Salle University-College of St. Benilde. On April 2, Dr. Francis Dimalanta will give a talk on"Empowering the Child and Adults with Special Needs.” A benefit dinner and performances, with one featuring special needs artist Samantha Kaspar, will also be held. For inquiries, contact 0927-6730827 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claire Madarang is a writer, traveler and seeker. Her wanderlust takes her on adventures like backpacking for 7 weeks straight. Her seeking leads her to different wellness practices like meditation and healthy (mostly vegetarian) eating. Follow her adventures, tips and epiphanies at her blog, Traveling Light.