Brush Strokes

This piece reminds me of Richard, a man with severe learning disabilities, with Autism who used to become suddenly and unpredictably violent towards himself and others for no apparent cause.

I first met Richard in a locked mental health clinic in 2007 and everyone involved in his care, including nurses, took great steps to avoid him whenever he paced the ward looking for attention. I felt very intimidate by him too, he was a large man and clearly an angry man, more so when his mother came to see him.

The nurses heavily sedated Richard for it was seen as the only means to protect this man from seriously harming someone. However the sedation only slowed him down but didn’t touch the cause of his anger. His inner pain. He grabbed others by the wrist and squeeze so tight they would lose feelings in the fingers.

One afternoon visiting the ward, Richard grabbed me. He wanted something from me and I didn’t know what. Richard led me to a locked store cupboard and with his eyes stared into the cupboard, there was something in there he remembered or believe was kept there. I opened the door and inside was some old books, catalogues, and a few boxes.

At first I thought Richard wanted to look at the magazines, and I showed him a few to illicit his interest, but his grip became stronger, he was getting angrier and I more afraid. I pull out boxes in haste and opened them. Inside was paint bottles, some never been opened. Intuition and adrenaline kicked in. I opened the bottle and poured some paint into his free hand. He then let go of my arm and rubbed his hands together and smiled.

Richard liked the texture, smell, colour and began to paint on the adjacent wall, using his hands as palette and fingers as a brush. For a few minutes I waited and watched Richard wipe different colours on to the wall. He held my hand lightly as if to invite me into his world. I took up the paints and did likewise.

Our mutual brush strokes, finger strokes were intermingled with smiles and glances of approval from Richard. He laughed when my sweeping lines overlapped his. He showed tremendous patience with me too when I took a step back, but each time he beckoned me back to continue with the piece, so onwards we went together. This went on for about half an hour. Then he suddenly stopped painting and walked off to his bedroom. He had finished with the painting.

I stood before the painting transfixed with the mural of colour we had made. One of the other patients commented that it was the longest they had seen Richard become engrossed by something. A nurse came out a said jokingly, “I suppose that’s what you call art therapy”. I paused and said “I call it conversation… it feels like we’ve had a conversation”

Richard’s Autism meant that he couldn’t communicate his thoughts in any other language than paintings. Recognisable by himself as to what it meant, recognisable by me as to what it did. It changed the way I related to Richard, to myself, to the nature of self, the nature of communication and how Richard, like all people, needed to share what was on his mind. A mind full of colour.

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19 Replies to “Brush Strokes”

  1. Richard and I still paint together, I feel a great joy in his company… and it’s more that the paintings, its the spontaneity of reciprocated interaction. What’s great too, is that he now uses this as means to communicate with his mother.

  2. Yes reciprocal, turn taking and trust building are the building blocks to a relationship. I’ve seen that with my own children, as they explore and interact with the world around them. It’s a wonderful thing…

  3. A wonderful experience I’m sure. I suppose, the human mind processes color and texture in a way that does not interfere with ‘defects’ or ‘aberrations’. I can imagine how Richard must have experienced a sense of release in the color conversation – indeed, we all need to communicate with fellow human beings, be it words, music, color, or simply with eyes and in touch.
    Thanks for sharing this insightful story.

  4. We know more about Autism these days – as an altered neurological state – rather than a defect, it’s a different perception of the world that places emphasis on minute details in the environment that people without Autism don’t perceive or otherwise habitually filter out. I’ve seen similar heightened senses and sudden artistic interests is some people with certain types of early stage dementia.
    Back to Richard, I suspected that he may have had a heightened sense of colour, texture, smell. His expressions were intensive when using paints, as was his sensitivity / irritation to noise, electrical lights, people talking were far more acute than my own. 
    My hunch is that we are all born with artistic attributes of one kind or another, but lose abstract thinking through educational processes and it’s over emphasis on concrete thinking.

  5. I love this beautiful work, and I love your beautiful story. Art is fundamentally a conversation, and your story captures that perfectly.

  6. Thank you J. I cannot imagine art that doesn’t produce a conversation, even an internal dialogue, change of perspective – even if it is just a more gentle and humane view of life.

  7. You know your reply to my comment (re. ‘over-education’) makes me think of Rabindranath Tagore and his experimentation, indeed conviction with ‘free’ education… Shantiniketan was his life’s work and while it began with a lot of hope and enthusiasm, it faltered early in its life, and today, it is a forlorn reminder of defeat of an ideal. Btw, Tagore discovered painting at 70 years. By then, he had exhausted the medium of words – as a poet, playwright, storyteller and song-writer.

  8. Failed attempts are worthy ones. Krishnamurti also undertook great step to re-shape childhood experiences of education based on the early development of meditation in the child’s life. His legacy includes a school, and centre near Winchester in the south of England and in Chenai I think. I have a deep growing respect for Tagore, and “finding” art at the latter stages of life I hope for us all, I was aim for 67 years :)

    Have a great day,
    Lee

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