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Cherokee Street gallery shows art by kids with autism — which is why you should see it

Many kids with severe autism can’t speak their minds. But when they communicate their thoughts and feelings through paint, paper mache, tin foil and beads, it can be a work of art.

Art by kids with autism is on display through June 6 at Cherokee Street’s beverly gallery, in a show called "Double Rainbow." The artists are students of Giant Steps, a private school for children, teenagers and young adults up to 21, who have autism.

Untitled by Sarah Solem
Giant Steps

Giant Steps teacher, artist and co-curator Edo Rosenblith (along with Jessica Baran of beverly and fort gondo) says the show challenges traditional ideas about who's allowed to show art in a gallery and be called an artist. Rosenblith noted that pushing back against popular opinion has historical value, legitimizing numerous genres including surrealism.

"Or, the Dada movement. It was influenced by what they called at the time ‘art brut’ or art made by people at mental institutions or children, people who are thinking of a more pure reason for making art instead of getting recognition,” Rosenblith said.

Rosenblith pointed to a recent exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum featuring the work of man named Jesse Howard, a self-taught artist from Fulton, Mo. Howard’s painted wood planks feature his extreme political and religious views with messages including, “And a woman say Jess the devil has me.”

Rosenblith said that kind of “outsider art,” shown in the same gallery with renowned artists challenges the status quo in the same way that “Double Rainbow” does — because it does not conform to what we may usually think of as “art.”

Shaun Thomas with his mother, Tammie Thomas, in front of some of his work
Giant Steps

Rosenblith has been working with Shaun Thomas since Thomas was 8. Now he’s 16. Shaun’s speech consists of a few words, delivered in a halting manner. But his artwork — words and symbols that Rosenblith calls "free association" — resonates with that of artists who’ve achieved great notoriety.

“He was creating these dense layers of information which I thought was really interesting,” Rosenblith said. “It reminded me of [Jean-Michel] Basquiat or other artists of German expressionism.”

Boosting confidence

Edo Rosenblith
Edo Rosenblith

Not all people with autism have limited language. Ethan Wickenhauser has Asperger’s and an impressive vocabulary, Rosenblith said. Wickenauser likes to look at images online, such as the famous “Mona Lisa,” and reimagine them.

“He’s very good at memorizing imagery and recreating it for himself,” Rosenblith said.

The 10 year old’s rainbow painting inspired the name of the exhibition. He and the other young artists also worked with masters candidates in art therapy, provided by VSA Missouri, an arts organization supporting people with disabilities.

VSA is also working on a documentary about the students and their work. Many of these kids have self-esteem issues, according to Rosenblith.

“Because they’ve had to leave other schools, they’ve been kicked out of other programs,” he said.

Seeing their work valued, and watching others enjoy it may help these students feel better about themselves.

“I feel like that can only help them feel more confident, about not only what they do in art, but in any other program or any other kind of thing they pursue,” Rosenblith said.

Double Rainbow by Ethan Wickenhauser
Cole Lu


“Double Rainbow” art exhibition

Where: beverly gallery, next to fort gondo, 3151 Cherokee St., 63118

When: Through June 6

How much: Free

Information: Event Facebook page

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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