You can find art all over town — not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.
Thirteen-year-old Max Miller had something special in mind for this year’s Autism Awareness Month: The first annual Youth Artists on the Spectrum show that opened opened on April 4 at 40 West Gallery, where it will be open 1 to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, as well as by appointment. With 98 original pieces by 47 autistic artists ranging in age from preschool to high school, this heartfelt, multi-medium exhibit is sure to make you smile. And according to Max’s mother, that’s sort of the point: “This isn’t a Debbie downer type of thing; we’re just here to make art and have a good time,” explains Rebecca Miller.
Max was nonverbal until he turned six, and has always had a hard time expressing himself. “Sometimes you get really frustrated with things," Max says. "I just wanted to tell everyone what it is to be me.”
About two years ago, the Denver Art Museum held an access day for families with children with sensory issues and disabilities. “Because Max has autism, we can’t go places that are too loud and busy,” Rebecca says. But the DAM special-access day kept things quiet, and when Max experienced art at the DAM, “his eyes bugged out of his head,” she recalls “He loved it, and we joined the museum. That’s when we heard about Spun.”
In 2013, Max was selected to participate in the DAM’s collaborative project Spun: Adventures in Textiles. Seeing his panel on display at a well-known museum was a good feeling, and Max knew he wanted to share art with others.
The ambitious kid founded the Blue Ribbon Arts Initiative the following year, initially as a way to provide art supplies to children on the autism spectrum. “A lot of us families are income-challenged: sometimes one of the parents has to quit a job or gets fired, and sometimes therapy bills pile up,” Rebecca says. “Max,” she continues, “wanted to make sure kids had art supplies, so we’d go to Staples and buy a bunch of stuff and put together these kits.”
The mother-son duo started collecting gently used music instruments, too, to get kids involved in music, although “nobody really wanted the old instruments," Rebecca remembers. "But they sure liked the art supplies.” The program grew, and Max has impacted dozens of local lives in some pretty amazing ways.
Art therapy is commonly used for kids on the spectrum, Rebecca explains. It’s therapeutic, and it offers a way for children to communicate how they’re feeling when they don’t have the words to express themselves. “Emotions are subjective, nontangible things that are hard to define,” she says. “Max would stumble as his brain tried to figure out what to say.”
Now, when Max is getting “all stirred up inside,” Rebecca puts him in front of paper and tells him to draw what he’s feeling. Aside from giving Max a voice, art also helped him develop motor skills — and it's also fun, Rebecca points out.
Max participated in the 40 West Arts District Hubcap Art Show last summer, when he sold his first piece. After that, “We knew we wanted to do a show that features kids on the spectrum for the primary reason of giving fellow autism families and opportunity to make art with their kids, hang it in a gallery and have that proud, excited moment of seeing it,” says Rebecca.
The result was the massive Youth Artists on the Spectrum show. The exhibit includes "BLOOM," a collaboration between Max and Ryan Matthews that uses mylar sheets and the handprints and drawings of children and their parents to create a beautiful, inclusive installation focusing on what children with autism can do.
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There’s also a moving display called "More Than a Diagnosis." This compilation of self-portraits created by participating artists is meant to convey that Max and his peers are “much more than just autistic kids,” as Rebecca puts it. “Max rollerblades, he plays PS3 and he listens to classic rock."
Max has also created a book that shows his multifaceted nature. Hello, My Name Is Max and I Have Autism contains a series of art and personal essays that explain what autism feels like from the perspective of a young person on the spectrum. Max has sold 700 copies since releasing his book, and a portion of sales are always routed into the Blue Ribbon fund. For more information, visit Blue Ribbon’s website.
Follow Jamie Siebrase on Twitter.