Artist with autism spectrum disorder proves good role model at Good Purpose gallery
LEE -- Justin Canha is a Renaissance artist whose work ranges from thumbnail-sized cartoon replicas penciled onto pages of well-worn composition books to large-scale colorful carnivorous plants created with charcoal and pastels.
The 24-year-old from Montclair, N.J., made his way to the Good Purpose Gallery on Main Street in Lee on Friday afternoon to host a cartooning workshop for students of the Berkshire College Internship Program (CIP), and to later greet people at an artist reception in the evening. His work will be on display until Feb. 5.
Much like a professor, Canha paced between tables of students -- some only a few years younger than he -- looking over their shoulders at their work. Though mostly silent, he would, at times exclaim a comment of approval, and even crack a smile -- "Wow! You work fast," he told a young man in a maroon hat.
In another moment, he would frown when he caught a student improvising their own character instead of the one listed in the handout. "You're supposed to be drawing Donkey," he told a young woman who inked her own character onto her sheet of drawing paper.
But, she didn't argue. "OK," she said.
As Canha swiftly swept through his tutorial, the rest of the young adults, 18-year-olds to 20-somethings, kept rapt attention to the drawing board and their respective pages.
Around the room's periphery, a group of educators, counselors and a filmmaker watched with keen interest the organic connections between Canha and the students being made before them.
Aside from a love for art, Canha and most of the students attending the workshop also share a place on the autism spectrum.
The autism refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment, or disability, that a person with autism spectrum disorders can have, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In terms of learning and expression, this generally means that people with this diagnosis may not think or behave in the same manner as most of their typical peers.
Because of this, students with autism may have trouble in school or fitting in with their peers, and may struggle with things like school work and bullying.
But on Friday, Canha and the CIP students all proved that though they may seem a little different than others, they're still fully capable of being artists, writers and creative thinkers and workers.
Canha was profiled and this issue was highlighted in a 2011 New York Times article, "Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World." The article stated that at the time, "some 200,000 autistic teenagers [are] set to come of age in the United States over the next five years alone."
Melissa Wish, who works with Canha and promotes his art, is also the mother of two young boys, one who is also on the autism spectrum. She told The Eagle Canha not only teaches her son Max, 6, about art, but also talks to the boy about being healthy and making good decisions.
"He's a role model," said Wish of Canha. "He has given me so much hope and taught me to not underestimate my own child."
Canha says he's always loved drawing and would sneak his composition books and mechanical pencils to work on his art, a process he began in 2003.
"The things they taught were boring. Drawing kept things more interesting," he said.
Asked if he showed his drawings to his classmates and teachers, Canha said, "I tried, but they told me it was distracting."
So, he would do his work in his room every night.
At Montclair High School, Canha got involved with a "transition to adulthood" program for special education students, which ultimately led him to securing a day job at a Mr. Cupcakes bakery. Canha said baking is another favorite creative outlet.
"I really want to create a birthday cake because it's an icon of birthday celebrations," he said.
In addition to baking, Canha also draws for children's birthday parties, exhibits his art in professional galleries, volunteers at places like children's hospitals, and makes pet portraits. Canha's art, autism, and transition into adulthood are the core themes of a documentary film, "Don't Foil My Plans" directed by Ben Stamper, who filmed Friday in Lee.
Travis McArthur, an admissions counselor for CIP Berkshire, said students' dem-
ands for scheduled time and projects in the creative arts fields prompted the Berkshire program to hire a full-time creative arts coordinator to develop a specific creative arts track for students, in addition to the college and career programs CIP offers.
Of the 54 students enrolled in CIP Berkshire, half are involved in some creative arts program, be it theater in CIP's Spectrum Playhouse, studio art, filmmaking or music. McArthur said about 12 students are on a dedicated full-time creative arts track.
Ellen Orell, 21, a CIP student, said the creative arts track is flexible, allowing students to pursue their interests and pitch program and project ideas.
"It allows a constructive and creative outlet for me. I don't know how else to put it, but it makes me feel appreciated," she said.
As a national organization, CIP offers art contest opportunities, and also publishes "ReFrame," an art and literary magazine of students' work. Last year, Orell won recognition in a national art contest for a painting she created from a poem she wrote.
"The poem is called ‘A Story of My Past.' It's sort of about bullying," she said.
Orell said she and her fellow students were interested in attending Canha's cartooning workshop to see how a young artist like him worked.
‘It's such a cool opportunity for them," said CIP Berkshire creative arts coordinator Kyle Goldman. She said like Canha, the CIP arts students also learn all sides of the art world, from creating art, film and theater, to marketing it and coordinating the showing of work. On Feb. 21, for example, CIP Berkshire will partner with Community Reso-
urces for People with Autism to co-present a variety show and benefit for arts programs.
For Orell, Canha and all the other students, validation of whatever abilities they have is the key to their success.
"I have autism," said Canha, "but my ability is to draw, and drawing can be my real hope in life."
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