Stonington exhibit celebrates talents of autistic artists

Autistic artist Robby Porter explains his artwork with the help of his mother, Sherri Zumo, at the La Grua Center in Stonington on Saturday, April 16, 2016.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
Autistic artist Robby Porter explains his artwork with the help of his mother, Sherri Zumo, at the La Grua Center in Stonington on Saturday, April 16, 2016. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Stonington — Seventeen-year-old Robby Porter has used his photographic memory to draw pictures since he was little, but until recently, he didn't like to share his drawings with others.

Porter, who is autistic, deaf, legally blind, has intellectual disabilities, numerous medical issues and just four fingers on each hand, is one of 10 artists whose artwork is on display at the La Grua cultural center in Stonington borough.

All five of his pieces, done in crayon, markers and acrylic paints, sold on opening night April 1, according to his mother, Sherri Zumo. 

La Grua Center is presenting "Celebrating Art in Autism"  through the end of April, which is Autism Awareness month.

It is the center's third annual art exhibit for autistic people of all ages, and the drawings, paintings, papier-mache works and pottery figures are shown in their best light at the high-ceilinged gallery by the water.

"We put this on exactly the same way as other exhibits," said Kelli Rocherolle, program director for La Grua Center. "We wanted them to have a real experience."

That means charging the artists a 25 percent commission on sales, even if the work sells for a few dollars, Rocherolle said.

The center does help families in other ways, she said, including framing the artwork if necessary.  

Porter, who was excited and anxious about showing his work to a reporter and photographer Saturday morning, clung to his mother, who conveyed questions to him in sign language and interpreted his responses.  

"When you draw, you feel what?" his mother asked.

He responded with the signs for happy and calm.

On opening night, his mother said, Porter for the first time used an iPhone application called Pictello to introduce himself and tell people he communicates using sign language.

Doctors said Porter would never walk, which proved wrong, but he did spend the first few years of his life viewing the world while lying on his back, Zumo said.

He still draws pictures of the family's first home — "right down to the where the remote was kept on the table" — from that perspective, she said.

Porter started drawing at age 5, making scattered lines that "morphed" into recognizable objects, such as fish, clowns, treadmills, people movers, sport utility vehicles and other objects that he finds fascinating.

"It's one way for him to address his memories and his dreams for the future," his mother said. "My dream for his future is to one day have his own gallery."

Stonington special education teacher Deidre Toole said it was exciting to see the children and young adults treated as professional artists on opening night. 

She said she dreams of one day opening an art studio/bakery/coffee shop, all run by people with disabilities, in the Stonington/Westerly area.

"These people have gifts that nobody ever gets to see or know about," she said. "They maybe can't communicate so greatly, but if you just slow down and look, it's so incredibly beautiful."

Toole said 19-year-old Billy Wilcox exhibited his work for the first time, surprising his mother on opening night with a painting called "Roses for Ma," and creating his own vision of the cowboy Woody from the Pixar film "Toy Story."

"Here he is at the art gallery, with all these people he loves," Toole remembered during a phone interview Friday. "He came up to me and said, 'Mrs. Toole, thank you for this art exhibit.' Then he opened his arms and gave me the most beautiful hug and put his cheek on my cheek."

It came as no suprise to anyone that Wilcox's mother bought the painting of the roses, and Toole bought the cowboy.

The exhibit also features paintings by 18-year-old Hajime Taguchi, whose works have won awards.

When his paintings sold on opening night, a buyer who admired them commissioned him to do another, according to Rocherolle, the program manager.

Rocherolle said she does watercolors, but not like Taguchi. She pointed to his painting of a Tibetan girl, saying he had perfectly captured the warmth in the face.

"His mother said he has a photographic memory, like Robby (Porter), and that their house is bursting at the seams with art," Rocherolle said.

Also featured are the works of 22-year-old Tyler Homand, an avid lover of the railroad whose colorful paintings of train cars are available on greeting cards; and Peter Fiore, 13, who entered acrylic paintings of local lighthouses and buildings.

Ten-year-old Maximus McGugan is displaying a papier-mache zebra mask, pottery figures and a pencil drawing of the Stonington Light House. 

Nathan Lamb, 17, made a pink paper maché elephant. Claire Norness, 20, collaborated with a good friend to produce colorful paintings of flowers.

Brothers Gabriel and Giolvanni DeCaro, ages 5 and 8, respectively, entered boldly colored works including Gabriel's "Mud River," with splashes of brown and red.

Robby Porter's mom said there is more awareness and understanding of people with autism and other disabilities, though there is still a long way to go.

"Every individual is a gift," Zumo said. "Every individual has a talent, and it is worth taking the time to figure that out."

k.florin@theday.com

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