The Awesome Rewards of Teaching James
This is what I know: I love teaching James.
It was about six years ago that I was asked to teach James*. He was 25 at the time. I’d never known, much less taught, anyone with autism before, but his mother was so sweet and so excited by the idea, I thought I’d give it a try.
On our first day, I spread a huge sheet of butcher paper over the studio table. I figured James would probably like to move some pastels across the long, wide page. I imagined his movements would be big and expansive. But instead, he moved the colors around in the area directly in front of him. I watched. I was learning from him. And he was learning to trust me.
He was so delighted as I showed him how to move the pastels all the way across the length of the big paper. I could see, even on that very first day, that making art would make James happy.
Six years later, it’s been an interesting ride. There have been a few bumps along the way, but our work together has been of real value to him and to me. I’ve come to love working with James over the years.
Here are a few reasons why:
- We speak in art. James rarely talks to me, and truthfully, it’s a relief. Sometimes I’m just talked out. We simply make art together, with music as our soundtrack.
He loves it when I work with him on the very same piece, and I do, too. We work together joyously. It’s collaboration in the purist form. We don’t have to talk. We speak in art.
- He teaches me. It has always been my practice to respect the sanctity of my students’ work. I rarely touch their art with my own pen or brush. But for James, my hands-off method wasn’t that effective—I could see that I could best help him by showing him, even on his own paper. I wasn’t comfortable doing this at first, but I’ve grown to enjoy it. Sometimes, we take turns. This way, I teach him lots of different ways of mark-making without ever having to say a word.
- I love how art calms him. James begins every class drawing in a huge sketchbook. I love that he gets to make the choice of media. He usually chooses colored pencils, and he’s always careful to use every colored pencil in the box.
I love these free-form pieces, each one similar and different. I love that this is totally and completely James—no advice or help from me. If James comes into the studio feeling agitated, the drawing begins to calm him.
However, nothing soothes him like painting. As he swirls the paint on the palette and brushes color onto the canvas, I can feel his energy completely calm. I know the feeling—it’s the same for me. We’re very much alike in that way—we both love to paint, love to mix colors, love how the brush feels as it moves around the canvas. We are kindred spirits.
- He’s learning. Because James doesn’t say much, it’s not easy for me to discern what he’s really taking in. But then times like yesterday happen. I said, “Let’s make green, can you get the paints?” He came back with two tubes of paint: cadmium yellow light and cerulean blue. That’ll make you some green, and that makes me happy.
- His drawing skills have expanded. James and I have worked in lots of media—wood, printmaking, pastels, inks, stencils, scratchboard, clay… We’ve always drawn, but a few months ago I asked him to draw a vase from life. He blew me away with his attention to detail and careful replication of form, line, and color.
Since then we’ve done lots of still-life drawing. I’m so proud of how he’s doing. I remind him, “slow and controlled,” and he repeats my words as he slows and studies. Check out this video of him drawing. Now I can see what he’s seeing. Isn’t that wonderful?
We all want to feel proficient and good about the work we do in the world. James loves to make art, and he’s proud of his work. A couple of years ago, James had a show of his paintings at Glen Echo’s Yellow Barn in Bethesda, MD, where he sold quite a few of his pieces. Pretty fabulous.
The joyous ability of art to heal and calm will always amaze me. I’m so grateful that as human beings, we’re all born with this creative instinct. No matter who you are or how you create, it’s an unparalleled gift of being human.
*James is a pseudonym to ensure privacy.
This article was featured in Issue 57 – Conquering A New Year