Young artists with autism display work at Mount Rainier gallery

Deion Hawkins approached his mother one day a little more than a year ago and asked her to help him draw Simba from Disney’s “The Lion King.” He had seen a video demonstration on YouTube and wanted to give it a try.

His mom, Michelle, shook her head, telling him she was no artist. “Maybe we need to sign you up for an art class,” she told him. She enrolled Hawkins, who is 19 and has autism, in one-on-one classes in the Accessible Arts program at Art Works Now in Mount Rainier.

Hawkins’s works are part of the “What We See” exhibit, on view in the studio’s gallery. Another student in the program, Rikki Moses, also has work in the exhibit. Rikki is 13 and also has autism. Both artists live in the District.

Fine motor skills such as drawing are somewhat difficult for Hawkins because of his autism. But he is passionate about Disney characters (and able to recite many of the animated movies’ scenes from memory), so he worked through the frustration and became adept at tracing them. His teacher, Leslie Holt, has him project drawings and photographs onto larger paper on the wall, where he traces them, then paints them, sometimes experimenting with color composition.

“This is not art therapy, this is just art class. These guys are artists. They came in as artists,” Holt said. “The adaptive piece is trying to figure out what they want to do next because their language skills are somewhat limited. There’s a lot of nonverbal cues I have to take in terms of figuring out where they want to go with their work and how I can push or nudge them in certain directions.”

Rikki Moses, 13, poses in front of her work at the opening of the “What We See” exhibit at Art Works Now in Mount Rainier. (Monica Buitrago)

Hawkins’s works include self-portraits and characters from the movie “Lady and the Tramp” and the cartoon “Tom and Jerry.”

Rikki loves drawing characters, such as Thomas the Tank Engine, from PBS programs. Her work also includes colorful paintings of collections of words, and recycled bottles decorated with paint and other materials.

Rikki’s mother, Tracey Moses, said Rikki always had an interest in art and has bins and boxes full of supplies at home. Relatives gave her drawing paper for Christmas, Moses said.

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Moses said, describing her philosophy of assuming competence. “All kids start out — no matter what kind of ability, you don’t know what they can accomplish. You have to give them those opportunities and allow them to either succeed or fail. Then you know what they are capable of.”

At the exhibit’s opening reception last month, both artists were excited to share their work with friends, family and the public.

“It has been a real boost for their self-esteem,” Holt said. “Especially with Deion. He’ll come in and say, ‘I made this.’ At the opening reception, he was buzzing all around telling people about the movies. And Rikki . . . was just hamming it up, posing for the cameras. That experience of having your stuff on the wall and having people come see it is really powerful.”

“What We See” will be at Art Works through Feb. 15. The gallery is also selling pieces from the exhibit. For information, visit www.artworksnow.org.

Mari-Jane Williams edits community news for Local Living.
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