From the December/January 2015 Issue:

Art & Antiques: Painting with Joy

    By: John Zeaman |

Artists rise above challenges of autism


Article Photo
enlarge | Artists Ronaldo Byrd (left) and Brad Friedman at a recent joint exhibit at Arts Unbound in Orange. Courtesy of Arts Unbound
When Ronaldo Byrd was three years old, he began to draw. Typically, children at that age will draw lopsided circles —perhaps with some spokes to suggest a sun or a few crude marks to indicate the features of a face. Young Ronaldo set out to draw a school bus—and not just the simple outline of one. “He wasn’t satisfied with a flat image,” his mother, Valerie Byrd, says. “He wanted to give it form—to make it three-dimensional.”

Brad Friedman, who, like Byrd, is on the autism spectrum, says he started even younger. “Since I was two years old!” he says, punctuating his answer with a characteristic “You betcha!”

Now they are adults—Friedman is in his early 50s and Byrd is 26. Friedman lives in Wayne, Byrd in Burlington Township. This past spring, the two had a joint exhibit at the Arts Unbound gallery in Orange. They lit up the brick walls of the small space with high-colored, joyous paintings of people, landscapes and still life.

Today, one in 45 New Jersey children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the highest percentage of any state in the nation. Exact causes and effective treatments have proved elusive. Despite their impaired social abilities, people with autism often possess special abilities—acute memories and talents in math, music and art. So while some people talk about a cure for autism, others, including many people with autism, say brain differences, like body differences, should be embraced. They argue for an acceptance of people whose brains work differently, a movement they call ‘’neurodiversity.’’

Providing Opportunities
Arts Unbound, founded in 2000 by educator and artist Catherine Lazen, fits right into this movement. One of the core arts organizations in Orange’s Valley Arts District, its purpose is to unleash and nurture the artistic expression of people living with developmental disabilities, mental illness and physical challenge (Arts Unbound, 544 Freeman Street, Orange, NJ 07050; 973-675-2787, artsunbound.org).

The bigger goal, Executive Director Margaret Mikkelsen says, is to help such people achieve some degree of independence. As such, its gallery is the real thing, not a token exhibition space for people who wouldn’t be taken seriously anywhere else.

“Our artists don’t have anything to prove artistically,” she says. “They are all talented, but it’s not talent alone that makes an artist. You have to work very, very hard at it—you have to present your work, you have to set prices, you have to market yourself.”

In light of this, the gallery recently hired a director of artist development—someone who will help the artists develop their careers, an important step on the path to greater independence.

On a recent day, Mikkelsen gave a tour of the gallery. The walls were lined with paintings and photographs, but the gallery has also proved resourceful in marketing spin-off items such as reproductions, notecards, puzzles, T-shirts, and scarves. The non-profit gallery keeps 40 percent of every sale and the artist gets 60 percent.

No one knows how many talented people with autism are languishing in obscurity, but statistics suggest there must be a lot. Consider that the frequency of savants in the autistic population is nearly 10 percent. That’s thousands of times higher than that of the normal population. And savants are only the tip of the iceberg, the ones with really uncanny abilities, such as British artist Stephen Wiltshire, sometimes called “The Human Camera.” Wiltshire has the ability to draw vast detailed panoramas of urban architecture after a brief helicopter ride over a city.


Article Photo
enlarge | Characters play an important role in Ronaldo Byrd’s paintings, including (from top) “Classical Orchestra,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Clown in the Mirror.”
Shedding Light
Byrd and Friedman aren’t savants, though Friedman has a knack for flawlessly recalling friends’ addresses, phone numbers and even their ZIP codes. But both are talented artists with a passion for what they do. Neither seems able to imagine a life without it.

Byrd is a serious-looking young man with an alert, watchful manner. He doesn’t speak much, but his abundant output testifies to a productive creative life—and a long workday. “He comes up for air,” his mother says of his dedicated work habits. “He’ll work all morning then get up, go to the refrigerator, get something to eat, load or empty the dishwasher, then get back to work. For the most part he doesn’t want to stop.”

A large, theatrically decorated room on the second floor of the family’s suburban home has been turned into a gallery for his work. The walls are painted enamel red and covered floor to ceiling with paintings. A pair of electric pianos stands at one end, and a row of salvaged theater seats is bolted to the floor at the other end.

His typical paintings depict a gang of cartoonish characters—kids and adolescents for the most part, though he has a penchant for inserting a couple of anthropomorphic pigs into his crowded scenes.

Over the years, he has created some 200 recurring characters, 10 or 20 of whom might show up in any given painting. They are a zany and happy bunch who typically can be seen hanging out at school, performing in an orchestra, dressed for Halloween, frolicking on the beach, playing soccer, on a camping trip—you name it, they do it. Byrd seems to love them all equally, for no character looms larger than the others. There is no Charlie Brown, no Lucy who stands out from the crowd. His is a world without stars.

His mother tirelessly promotes her son’s career and enlists the help of his siblings. His art is the family’s cottage industry. In a computer room off the gallery, his younger sister, Veronica, works on Byrd’s web presence, updating his Facebook page and his Shopify site, posting new paintings, fielding requests for commissions and recording sales. Most of his paintings are around $500, but smaller ones go for as low as $75. There are also the hand-painted T-shirts, the holiday cards and the cloth dolls, which his mother sews.


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enlarge | From top, “Ring Around the Supplies,” ‘Cornfield” and “Cake Art” are by Brad Friedman, who varies his style to suit his subject.
Varying Styles
Temperamentally, Friedman is the opposite of the taciturn Byrd. He talks nonstop. The moment a visitor arrives, the tour is under way. His paintings hang in every room of the house, a 1950s split-level that he shares with his father, Herb, a retired executive with the Bendix Corp.

His special talent is to vary his style to suit his subject. When he takes inspiration from pop culture, he uses a witty, illustrational style, as in his orchestra of characters from TV commercials—Tony the Tiger, the Lucky Charms leprechaun and the Pillsbury doughboy, among others. In another lighthearted piece, he put himself on the cover of TV Guide, even creating the magazine’s mailing label with his own name and address on it.

When he turns to themes from nature, however—a river under a starry sky, a waterfall in the fog— he uses oils on canvas, laying on the paint in a thick impasto with a lyrical flair.

For a series in which he rendered every room of his house from a bird’s-eye view, he switched to a tight, architectural style, executing the lines of the rooms in perspective and finding interesting patterns in the arrangements of furniture and floor tile.

Similarly, he rendered all the scenes he passed on his daily walks, once again using a linear style and paying equal attention to the patterns of chain-link fence and railings as to the houses and natural features beyond.

Unlike Byrd, Friedman has no marketing plan and no presence on the Internet. He is relatively isolated and is one of the artists who will almost certainly benefit from some of the career development that Arts Unbound plans to provide.

Those looking for a role model in the autistic artist community can point to Justin Canha from Montclair. He showed at the Arts Unbound Gallery before being picked up by the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. A show there featured his surreal botanical paintings titled “Carnivorous and Other Exotic Plants.” He also has exhibited at the annual Outsider Art Fair in Manhattan and has been featured in several documentaries.

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists (New Jersey chapter) and the Manhattan-based Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club. He is the author of Dog Walks Man, (Lyons Press, September 2010) about art, landscape and dog walking.