By Rachael McCampbell
The 21 Artists Collaborative is 21 Nashville artists who are invited to work with individuals with Down syndrome for the Pujols Foundation, a national non-profit with a two-prong mission of serving impoverished areas of the Dominican Republic and creating extraordinary opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome. I was told that I was paired with a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome and autism who is non-verbal. My first thought was how will we communicate and make art together if he doesn’t speak?
The first time I met Scott, his parents brought him to discuss what we were going to paint. I showed Scott my artwork and the different subjects I have painted in the past. He indicated that he liked my horse paintings. Did he like portraits of horses’ faces, jumping racehorses, grazing horses, or running horses? Running horses. Next I pulled out the vine charcoal and paper and talked about looking at shapes, which is a fundamental of drawing. We studied photos of horses and broke them down into ovals, rectangles, and triangles. With my hand guiding his, Scott was able to make these shapes with me and then on his own.
Scott has a form of autism that is called sensory processing disorder, which manifests itself in hyposensitivity to touch and movement, both hyper and hyposensitivity to sound, hyposensitivity to oral input, and hypersensitivity to visual input. All that said, what I discovered was a quiet, sweet young man who moves slowly but intentionally. He smiles a great deal and laughs when I make goofy sound effects while painting. At first, I chose the colors and mixed them with his hand in mine, then I asked him to pick the colors. I was impressed by his bold choices of almost primary colors and his thick application of paint. Scott belly laughed when we playfully splashed and splattered paint and let it drip to the floor.
Anita, Scott’s mother, shared with me that when her son was born, they tagged his chart with the acronym FLK, which meant he needed testing for possible chromosomal defects. When she asked what FLK stood for, the nurse told her “Funny Looking Kid.” Anita was appalled and complained. Hopefully they have stopped such insensitive labeling.
I mention this because Anita took a video of me working with Scott, and when we played it back, all I could see was what a bad hair day I was having, and she commented on how her voice sounded funny. Of course the person with the best self-esteem in the room was Scott, who knows he’s grand all the time. No FLK for him. He has no time for labels or fears of what others think—no criticism or negativity. He’s simply kind. At one point in the painting process, he leaned over and rested his head on my shoulder as if to say, “You are okay with me.” That was a vote of confidence that meant more than any I have ever received—one that I will always treasure.
Scott, you came to learn from me, but I can assure you I learned much more from you, and you never spoke a word.
Please support The Pujols Family Foundation on June 17 at The Standard at The Smith House in Nashville. The event is free and open to the public. You can bid on the artwork by these amazing artists with Down syndrome and their mentors. For more information please visit www.21ArtsCollab.com or www.pujolsfamilyfoundation.org.
Rachael McCampbell is an artist, teacher, curator, and writer who resides in the small hamlet of Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee. For more about her, please visit www.rachaelmccampbell.com.