This is more than a story about an artist and his art. You look at Christian Early’s portraits of animals and each one seems to possess a distinct personality. While you’re gazing at them, they’re seemingly scrutinizing you. The colors, like the “sitter’s” unflinching stare, are intense, direct. And while many of Christian’s paintings are inspired by animal photographs, the life imbued in the final work emanates from a very special place indeed. For Christian Early was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, and the strides he has made as an artist stand as a tribute to his art teachers, his supportive cousins but mostly to the love and perseverance of his mother, Mayra.
Autism is frequently described as a developmental disorder usually diagnosed around the age of 3. Until then, autistic children develop and behave much like normal children. From that point on, they have varying degrees of difficulty with verbal and communication skills, social interactions and activities with others. Autism doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, ethnic makeup, social standing, economic status or educational factors, though it does afflict four times as many boys as girls.
Within that description one finds a wide spectrum of humanity. At one end are those unable to care for themselves and who must live their lives under institutional care. At the opposite end you find “savants,” those who exhibit extraordinary skills in a particular area. Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” was based on Utah savant Kim Peek who has been described as a walking Google, reads two pages of books simultaneously, one with each eye, and has perfect recall of some 12,000 books. In the art world, British savant, Steven Wiltshire drew an accurate rendering of Rome, individual streets, windows, columns and all, from the air after one pass over it in a helicopter.
As with any Bell curve distribution, the above are exceptional. Most autistic people, like Christian, fall somewhere in the middle. In many ways, these autistic people have a rougher time. With neither the celebrity stemming from their phenomenal ability, nor the state supplied institutional care, people like Christian and their families must fend for themselves once the person leaves school.
And school or other social situations can be trying indeed for everyone involved. Doctors will tell parents to put the child in an institution. Teachers often give up on the student. Other children will be, well, … children. All these factors conspire against autistic people.
Christian had someone special in his corner, however. Mayra. Here is how she describes the battle she and Christian have faced.
“He was fine until he stopped talking, began spinning objects, stopped looking at me in the face and began having tantrums. I associated it all with a trip I was taking to the States to see my parents, but when I took him to the doctor for a cold, one of the doctors stared at him and shockingly said out loud. ‘That boy has autism!’ I was unaware of what that meant or even what that word entailed. Twenty years ago it meant death and, believe me, it was.
“Finally when he was diagnosed by five very competent doctors, or so I thought. He was labeled and the death warrant was issued. ‘Put him in an institution,’ was the verdict. ‘He may never toilet train, never talk, never read, never write.’ Needless to say, it was a pain that cannot be described.
“From then on it was a battle which has never stopped. A battle with doctors, schools… At some points I encountered wonderful educators, few and scattered, in South America as well as here in the States. I decided to move back to the States when he was barely seven.”
Today, Christian does write, he does read. As Mayra says, “He does not have Asperger’s syndrome. No, my son is normal, just like most. He lies in the middle of the spectrum. He is not severe, yet he is not a genius and that is why the battle has been so arduous. When no advancement is noted, a simple ‘babysitting’ class is not a parent’s dream, but it many times is accepted. When a child excels at something, even though a label exists, there is still hope the world may turn its eyes and ‘see’ the talent and not concentrate so much on the diagnosis. But when the child falls in the middle and no strength is seen, there lies the problem.”
Clearly, society’s understanding, handling and care of people with autism lag way behind the needs of those affected by the condition and their families. Christian was one of the many who did not attract attention, either because of the direness of his affliction or his brilliance in some area. For example, he always excelled in swimming but not enough to merit a gold medal at the Special Olympics. When he reached high school, he was one of those the teachers wanted to give up on. In most cases the one on one attention he required was not forthcoming. The school authorities predicted a grim future. (The usual refrain when they cannot actually do anything to help a person.)
A vocational school did not work out either, so Mayra implemented a home school curriculum and it was here that a mother’s determination to help her son led to the discovery of Christian’s love of painting.
A very good friend of Mayra’s who is also a painter became his first teacher. She took Christian patiently from having no fine motor skills to an ability to paint lines and circles that resulted in something. Further, Mayra implemented a home based therapy group: an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a behavior therapist supported by a couple of young high school kids, his grandmother and his cousins. Says Mayra, “With their help we developed a program where he was stimulated from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. every day and painting proved to be his unequivocal strength. At least he loved it and could concentrate for hours with paintbrush in hand.”
At first it was drawing, rough depictions of Spiderman, dinosaurs and sharks. The family pool became the site for Christian’s first mural. “All was quite difficult,” Mayra continues. “First, we had to place the painting on a crisscross paper. Christian then labeled each square and then he transferred it to the wall. Such was the beginning of his painting career.”
Later, he progressed to still life, using tempera on paper. A new teacher added discipline and structure to his work. All the work began to pay off: Christian sold a couple of paintings to friends and to some clients in Mayra’s personal trainer practice. He was on his way, but it is, and may always be, a developmental arc of progress.
Mayra herself does some painting and Christian next came under her tutelage. She took steps to develop the right side of Christian’s brain, using the well known book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” having him draw inverted images, drawing the spaces between objects and so on.
Acrylics and canvas replaced other media. Books with pictures of animals became the source of inspiration for Christian’s animal paintings of big cats, great apes, birds of the rain forest, all rendered with bright colors and those intense penetrating eyes.
In December of 2006, Christian was invited to do his first art show and sold three more paintings. One was raffled off to help poor children back in Colombia.
Mayra says that Christian will sometimes show little initiative or motivation, so she sets up a schedule for him so he knows when he must paint. Mayra prompts him to make his color choices and placement of objects on the canvas. Once he gets going, Mayra leaves him alone, checking back when certain features are done and thenprompting which to do next. It is an ongoing and not always predictable process. “There is no doubt,” says Mayra, that Christian “’sees’ things differently and many times comes up with some things in his paintings that are just ‘different’. Yet more importantly, through painting he truly has developed self-esteem. At school he was good at nothing, so painting has opened a new world to him.”
It was Christian’s first teacher who first recognized, saw his painting develop and told her about artregistration.com.
“They’re very helpful,” Mayra says. “It’s amazing. Lynn is wonderful. The art show in December had two weeks notice. I couldn’t get the pictures on the site and she was so helpful. The other thing is, it’s an exposure. The paintings, how they’re shown on the site, for an artist it opens up a whole realm of possibilities. You’re able to tell a person, ‘go to the website and see my paintings.’ And it’s international. It gives your art credibility. artregistration.com is a great concept.”
Christian has since gotten a new teacher who intends to create greater independence for him as a painter by increasing his choice of subjects and his ability to see more details and values in things. Her plan is to introduce Christian to ceramics which will engage and develop his tactile sense. And of Christian’s future as an artist?
“He may not become Rembrandt,” his mother says. “He is not a Picasso or a prodigy savant with autism. He is Christian, the painter. If you ask him what he is, he will answer, ‘I am an artist, I am a painter.’ And if you are lucky, and he decides to talk at that moment, he may add. ‘I am going to New York and to the world to show and tell’. So be on the lookout for you may never know. If 21 years ago five doctors predicted he would never write, never read, never potty train and he was able to do all that, who can tell where Christian will find himself a couple of years from now. The important thing is to remember is that many times artists are not born, they are made. The painter named Christian is in the making.”
As is obvious, this article about Christian Early is as much about his mother. It’s fitting that we hear from her about the impact her son has had on her life. “Being a single parent of an autistic individual has been a challenge in my life,” she says. “I have brought Christian up alone and it has not been easy but I can truly say, in the long run, it has truly been worthwhile. I have seen, through Christian’s eyes a world I would never have imagined, had God not afforded me a child like him. “Problems seem to melt when his focus goes on, “Mamita (little mom, as he fondly calls me), look at the red dragon beside us.” I look and see a huge red truck. And he adds, “the teeth are big and white” And touches his teeth to dramatize his remark. “He can find every detail I never thought even existed. ‘There’s a tiger in front of us,’ his remark when driving at the tiny little tiger stuck on a bumper sticker, ‘and it is blue. Tigers aren’t blue mamita. That’s a blue, very blue tiger like a shark but with no teeth. You see it Mamita?’
“How could I sum up having an autistic adult (now, he’s 23)? He is my miracle and he, with his own way of seeing the world, has taught me more than I could ever teach him. So, if I were ever asked if I would do it again, with tears I would have to embrace the challenge for, thanks to him, I have become a better person.”
— by Dan Koon | June 4, 2007