The Power of Art at Kite Studios
By Lucy Richardson, Mother of Orlando
My son Orlando is now 17 and has autism and haemophilia. At his diagnosis aged 3 they said he may never speak
.As soon as he could hold a pencil he started drawing. He didn’t speak he drew – piles and piles of drawings. He would find a character or a symbol – Biff, Chip, Mr Men, Tintin, Captain Haddock, Wally, maps, football shirts – and draw them over and over again until he had learnt them by heart. He could create them with a few deft strokes in a matter of seconds.
Visual representations were important to him. He preferred pictures of things to real things. They made sense to him: solid and unmoving, bright colours encased in black lines just for him. Nature: plants, trees, flowers were too vague and ill-defined.
Animals (particularly small unpredictable ones like hamsters) alarmed him. He did not want them intruding into his world. Something about this world of cartoon style drawing he created was deeply satisfying and soothing to his autistic soul.
So in 2007 when Orlando was 8 I started looked for a holiday art class for him to try and develop his art skills. This was easier said than done. After initial chat about their wonderful workshops I told them about his autistic spectrum. “How disabled is he?” they said. “But he’s in a main stream school he fits in.” I said “He has a helper who can come with him.” I cried out feebly. No -one called me back. I was about to to give up. Then at a supper for mums of disabled children in West London I met Auriol Herford of Kite Studios. “Send him to me,” she said, and so I did.
He went regularly to a selection of holiday workshops every holiday along with his helper. This then extended to Saturday morning classes as well.
He expanded his repertoire of media: from strictly pencil or felt tip to painting with acrylic, oil, water colour. He made paper- mache models, rolled inky geometric etchings. He built ships, modelled strange birds, monsters, puppets and designed himself colourful t-shirts which he wore with pride.
He painted an enormous canvas of a poem in a picture with a combination of colourful rhyming characters – a man in a cat suit, superhero – all smiling and reaching for the stars. He held his birthday parties there: creating t-shirts, building alien creatures from junk covered in mud rock.
The children from his state school wouldn’t leave they were having such a good time. “It’s time to go,” called Auriol melodically from the stairs. Then more firmly “This party is now over,” but still they lingered, not wanting to leave this magical experience of creative anarchy.
In his early teenage years despite the spirals of adolescent rages and inertia, he still carried on attending the holiday workshops. He would come back with a variety of creations: etchings of imagined cities, long oil paintings of the last supper, tiny fruit in a tiny room he had made. The sketch books full of his planning and ideas to show how he got to his own unique vision were a miracle to me. I marvelled at how Auriol managed to engage him for so long and get such rich detail and variety from him.
At home he would still only draw what was in his head, on his terms. If I tried to set up an art activity he would invariably say that he had finished after 10 minutes and nothing I could say could induce him to go back and add detail. How did Auriol do it?
Through a combination of patience, tenacity and belief, she takes all young people and their artistic aspirations seriously. She does all this with an autistic child who goes through the education system with people continually not wanting to upset him and letting him settle for half of his potential because it gives them an easy life.
Orlando was always challenged but also supported when leaving his comfort zone and doing something new. Sensitive to his moods the Kite Staff were always able to see the signs when he was getting agitated. The teaching team help structure the work so he could carry on achieving. In the studio he was taking part in art workshops that were between 2-4 hours long with ease.
When Orlando started college at 16 we were dismayed when he came back with a timetable of only two full days, a morning and an afternoon – apparently this constitutes full time education. Whilst he is accessing full-time education he is not eligible for any apprenticeships or work experience schemes.
At 16 he is too young for any of the exciting looking adult education courses. He began to spend large swathes of time on the computer downloading viruses, booking car test drives and running up debts with Ancestry.com. He emerged from his room only to demand £10 for trips with his local Mencap group to Nandos. Was this his future? “It’s so unfair” I wailed to Auriol. “Send him to me,” she said, and so I did.
He started going to Kite Studios on Fridays to do guided work experience and an hour of art during December 2015. At first he was reluctant to break his Nandos habit. “Why do I have to?”, he kept saying. This soon changed. During the 6 months he has been spending his Fridays at Kite Studios, the benefits have been enormous. He has learnt about being flexible in the workplace, to share space with others and behave appropriately towards colleagues.
Orlando has undertaken a diverse range of tasks from helping with children, to art preparation, assisting in workshops and delivering marketing flyers. Most importantly he takes great joy in setting off to Kite Studios every Friday morning, bounding in to greet everyone. He knows that he will be accepted, listened to and respected. He has formed good relationships with all of the Kite Studios team and gained a real sense of being involved in a community.
His confidence in himself has grown as he has taken on the project of studying for the Silver Arts Award. This is a unique award given by Trinity College where students are encouraged to take the lead and realise their creative dreams. Orlando has been highly motivated in organising his own exhibition of portraits of the Kite Studios staff and friends as part of the Kite Studios 1st Summer Show on June 18th at 4-7 pm. His drawing is developing as he is learning to stop and look at the shape of people’s faces.
Auriol has helped him to develop a good practice of stopping to look again at the spaces and shapes of the subject he is drawing. He has also started to visit exhibitions as part of learning and understanding more about the art world. It is a pleasure to see him take ownership of his creative talents and start to use them to bring pleasure to others.
All young people with disabilities should be welcomed into the community and encouraged to fulfil their potential rather than be stuck at home. Orlando’s sense of belonging and ownership of Kite Studios is a testament to Auriol’s belief in a community that should be open to all and value everyone for their differences. Allowing space of the individual to flourish.
As a family it gives us hope that he may one day be accepted into the world of work. It also means that when we are gone he will have the means to support himself, rather than being reliant on the grudging crumbs of state provision.