Autistic artist Jessica Park shows paintings at Good Purpose Gallery in Lee

Thursday November 8, 2012

LEE -- Artist Jessica "Jessy" Park sits at a table with a half-finished painting of The Mount before her. From time to time, she refers to a rough sketch of the Edith Wharton estate beside her. With ruler in hand, she draws precise lines, sketching the rest of the building before she paints.

She moves the ruler away, carefully avoiding smudging any of her work, and there it is -- the popular Berkshire attrac tion, accurately laid out in geometric lines, like the blueprint for a construction project. While it is very clear what the painting is depicting, Park's work offers a surreal take on a familiar structure. It is a kaleidoscopic rendering of Wharton's man or home, painted in bright iridescent colors.

Park is working in the middle of the opening night reception for "Visions on the Spectrum II," an exhibition of her work that runs through Jan. 2 at the Good Purpose Gallery in Lee.

"The work is just so colorful, very detailed, and intricate -- it's so beautiful," says Josephine Freedman, a visitor to the gallery, as she looks at a wall of paintings, a range of familiar structures re-imagined in a bright rainbow aesthetic. Among the roughly 30 prints, works represent the Brooklyn Bridge, Chapin Hall at Williams Col lege, and an original painting of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.

The paintings offer a unique perspective on the world. Born on July 20, 1958, Park, who was raised and lives in Williamstown, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3 -- at a time when not much was known about the disorder.

Prac tically mute as a child, she found a way to communicate with the world through her art, and her own story be camea source of hope for others with the condition.

In 1967, her mother, the late Clara Park, who taught English at Berkshire Com munity College and Williams College, published "The Siege: A Family's Journey into the World of an Autistic Child," a groundbreaking account of the Park family's experiences and struggles with raising Jessy. In 2001, Clara publshed the book's sequel, "Exiting Nirvana."

"Our mother encouraged her painting," said Jessy's brother, Paul, who accompanied her at the opening reception along with their sister, Rachel. "She thought of it as a way of keeping Jessy engaged."

Jessy was a student at Mount Greylock Regional High School when she developed a real affinity for art. She quickly matured, going from stick figures to renderings of inanimate objects like buildings and heat ers, objects that she calls her "enthusiasms," Rachel said.

"At the time, autism was seen as this really devastating diagnosis, but through her art, Jessy was able to show that she, and other people like her, could become contributing members of society," Rachel explained.

Jessy lives fairly independently, selling commissioned paintings while working in the Williams College mailroom, where she has been a familiar face for more than 30 years.

The current exhibition is the first time Jessy's work has appeared in the Good Purpose Gallery, a part of the College Internship Program, which offers education and arts programs to young adults with Asperger's syndrome and learning differences.

"Art is a language that is liberated from words," said gal lery coordinator Dianne Steele. "Many people who fall on the autistic spectrum use art as a way to communicate. Art is their language."

It is a language understood by an increasingly large number of people.

According to the CIP founder, Michael P. Mc Manmon, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syn drome at age 51, more children are born on the "autistic spectrum" now than ever before.

"I think an event like this is important because it expands one's understanding of humanity," McManmon said. "Think of all of the people you've walked by or ignored on the street who are like Jessy, and you didn't have any conception of what they are capable of."

In many ways, Jessy's successes mark a high standard for people with autism, said Anthony Gengarelly, a professor in the Fine & Performing Arts de part ment at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who published "Exploring Nirvana: The Art of Jessica Park" in 2008.

"The first time I saw her work, I wanted to know more about her story," Gengarelly said. "But you learn over time that art in itself is an independent entity. The fact that she has autism should not overshadow the art that she makes."

When asked during the re ception if she likes painting with bright colors and rainbows, Jessy answered an enthusiastic "yes." Then she turned away and went back to work, adding a bright touch of yellow to The Mount.


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