“My drawing skill developed from a desire to reach a common ground of understanding with people. Watching people speak with the ease of just a few words combined with innuendo and body language has always been a mystery to me,” Steve Selpal (1950 – 2017)
By Debra Muzikar and Keri Bowers’ tribute follows
Through the Art of Autism project I have been privileged to come to know many incredible artists, poets, writers, and creative people on the autism spectrum. I can unequivocally say that one of the people who has most effected the project and educated me about Asperger’s has been Steve Selpal, who I consider to be a friend.
I was extremely saddened to hear of his passing this week after a struggle with lung cancer. Even in the throes of his treatment, Steve continued to be part of our project writing a blog about singing bowls, vibration, chakras and his new chakra art. I was always grateful to hear from Steve who resided on the east coast. He would call very late at night which made me think he was a night owl because it was 3 hours earlier here in California. His calls were always welcome as he shared his insights about autism, Aspergers, my son Kevin, art, and funny and honest commentary about the state of the world.
Steve was diagnosed late in life at the age of 56. His Asperger’s diagnosis came as a tremendous relief after being misdiagnosed for decades. He writes in my first book Artism: the Art of Autism “My psychiatric portfolio is equal to my artist portfolio because my psychiatric history begins in March 1970 as schizophrenic…Art was a natural communique because I could not speak English in Kingergarten … When I was 17, I was reborn with the gift of speech.” Steve attributes an LSD trip at age 17 opening up his speech channels. “Timothy Leary is not my hero, but I must credit him with giving me a set of adjectives to describe my daily life. Think for yourself and question authority.”
Steve had many struggles during his life which included being bullied as a teen. I recall a story he told about a gang of teens who used to harass him every day. Steve’s solution was to create a bomb and blow up the bridge that separated by river his home from his tormentors. His stories were full of pathos yet funny and endearing. I know he wrote many of them down and I hope they will become available for others to read. Besides my two books, he was published in two anthologies that I know about – Temple Grandin’s Different But Not Less and Craig Evans and Anita Lesko’s Been There. Done That. Try This. An Aspie’s Guide to Life on Earth. I recall one that he wrote about the overwhelming sensory bombardment of visiting a gas station, which gives an insight into the sensory challenges he faced every day.
He writes about his discomfort with looking people in the eye. “When people look me in the eye, I feel molecules sucking out of me, my energies diminishing. At the same time, I would forget what I was saying.,” and of his different way of hearing “I didn’t know everyone else didn’t have a radio in their head until I was ten.”
Steve was a fine artist whose art went through many changes and reflected both the dark and light times in his life. He had a period when he painted his dreams. His images were laced with symbolism and personal meaning. “These paintings are not surrealism, but instead, dream recollections or remembrances. As dreams contain action, which is lost in a static medium, I began overlaying the images based on the hierarchy of importance.”
He also did a series of paintings and bas reliefs of people who were autism influencers. Keri Bowers and I were honored to be included in his paintings. (I’m changing my profile picture on Facebook to this portrait in Steve’s memory).
I’m honored that he says on this painting “Illuminate Creativity rather than Disability” because that is what I attempt to do every day.
Below is Donald Triplett the first person diagnosed with autism. He also honored Temple Grandin and Stephen Shore.
During the time I knew Steve he created a wonderful peace labyrinth at his church in Del Rey, Florida. Many people come to see that labyrinth.
Toward the end of his life he found peace in meditation and painted profound chakra and Buddha paintings.
Our heart goes out to his partner Anita, his mom and sisters. We are happy that Steve is out of his pain. The Art of Autism is dedicating our 2017 Poems and Art for Peace Project to Steve Selpal.
By Keri Bowers
Steve and I met years ago on a sticky hot Floridian day at an Autism Brainstorm conference in Ft. Lauderdale. Throughout the conference, we exchanged serious and funny stories about art, autism, philosophy and the mutual friends we had in common. Artist to artist, we connected to an immediate spiritual bond via discussions of wild days in the 60s. That first exchange begat a continuing cyber friendship between us I cherish.
In honoring Steve’s life, here is an excerpt from a prayer written in Acco (Acre) Prion, on the coast of Palestine, probably in the late 1870s by Bahá’u’lláh himself which Steve shared with me last year. Holding special visionary symbolism for him, Steve was sharing what he called the “forces of mischief” and said, “Don’t worry, I’m still Stevo.” I think he meant for me not to get too caught up in the “Thy’s” and “O my Lord’s”. He laughed but knew my son’s father was a Bahai. Though I knew him to explore many paths, Steve was also a member of Bahai World Faith since the early 70s.
“There is no one, O my Lord, who can deal bountifully with me to whom I can turn my face, and none who can have compassion on me that I may crave his mercy. Cast me not out, I implore Thee, of the presence of Thy grace, neither do Thou withhold from me the outpourings of Thy generosity and bounty. Ordain for me, O my Lord, what Thou hast ordained for them that love Thee, and write down for me what Thou hast written down for Thy chosen ones. My gaze hath, at all times, been fixed on the horizon of Thy gracious providence, and mine eyes bent upon the court of Thy tender mercies. Do with me as beseemeth Thee. No God is there but Thee, the God of power, the God of glory, Whose help is implored by all men.”
A close up of text on a black background Description generated with high confidence a person holding a sign Description generated with high confidence “Red is not blue, and green is not yellow”
For Steve, there were many paths to the kingdom. As a free-spirited artist and lay philosopher, he was a spiritual beacon who shared his heart and philosophies freely with so many. Along with vibrant abstracts, sculptures and other art he created, Steve’s love of painting portraits of people in autism is how I remember him. He told me he was especially proud of his portrait of Temple Grandin, yet painted many others in autism including Stephen Shore… and even me.
Steve gifted me with this work after seeing me talk about the “colors of autism” on a news program. He was very generous in sharing his art with others, and of course in sharing his painting with me.
Steve was a passionate advocate. His concern and efforts for the vocational guidance of young artist Aspies to deal with what he called modern human resources and other life gigs are also how I will remember Steve. It was last year exactly at this time – nearly to the day – that Steve disclosed his then-recent diagnosis of cancer. I know he fought bravely, yet lived powerfully, even smiling on the outside, to the end. My thoughts and prayers go out to his inner circle, his love, his family, who remain to love and remember his legacy.
While I am sad for Steve’s passing and the loss of his magnificent earthly voice, talent and friendship, I am also knowing the “better place” people talk about when someone dies exists. I imagine Steve’s spirit ~ seeing it manifest like art in my head ~ soaring freely now that his mortal life is done. In the Bahá’ís faith, it is believed that there is life after death and hold that the soul is created at the moment of conception and will retain its individuality in an eternal realm. The body, which is compared to the lamp holding the light of the soul during its time in this world, is treated with dignity. And so I believe it was and is for Steve.
Aptly, I share his last words to me.
“…You can still see the bright light shining through! Shine on brightly! Steve says that!”
God bless you, Steve, in love, remembering, and friendship,