As art and music is being excluded form more and more schools it pains me to know that others might not get the opportunity to express themselves through their artistic and musical abilities.
By Nick Gustafson
As long as I could remember words were always trapped inside my head. I was always the quiet one. The silent one everyone forgot about or over looked. At home I spent my time alone in my room with my cats. People often talked about me as if I was deaf and could not hear them simply because I did not speak. They asked others if I could speak instead of asking me.
School was especially difficult for me. My family moved around a lot and it made a quiet shy kid withdraw even more. My family moved 3 times when I was in the 2nd grade alone.
During class when the teacher would ask a questions that I knew the answers to I was afraid to answer. Even when specifically called upon I would just look down and shake my head no. The answers were all there, but trapped inside my head behind my lips. At recess when other kids would play and socialize I would walk out into the dense fog of the grass fields at my school and disappear alone. Even in high school at lunch break I would pretend to be a sleep so that I would not have to talk or interact with people. Selective mutism is the term that I had heard about decades later that seemed to fit.
During that time, art was always my way of communicating. Coloring for hours and hours using every color I had available to me. Eventually coloring turned to drawing my own creations. In school I would draw on the backs of my homework papers. When the backs of the papers were full I would draw around the borders. My teachers often commented that I needed to spend more time actually doing my homework papers than drawing on it. I was dyslexic and struggled with words and numbers but art did not need those.
In the fourth grade the teacher had us draw pictures for an open house. The teacher singled me out because I had completed a half dozen drawings before most students finished one. There were more visual ideas inside my head than I could ever draw. The teacher hung up all my drawings. It was my way of speaking to the class and the school. Others started to take notice my artwork and appreciate it. Soon class mates would ask me to draw them things. Art became my voice. My way of expression.
In the sixth grade the teacher had all the students enter a drawing for the fire prevention poster contest. It was the first art contest I remember entering. The subject matter was perfect for me because of my love of animals and nature. I spent hours on the poster and was the one of the last ones to turn in my drawing. I won the fire prevention poster contest and got called up in front of the whole school. I was painfully shy and terrified but my voice was being heard through my artwork.
In Junior high I would get selected to do comic strips for the school newspaper. Again I could be heard without speaking actual words. In high school I was selected to do an illustration for the school calendar to raise money for the art department.
My senior year my family moved again and I was devastated. I was alone again in a strange town with no one. My counselor told me not to take the zoology class I signed up for because they thought it was beyond my mental capabilities. My love of animals notwithstanding. So my only salvation was my artwork. I took 3 art classes and 1 photography class. The teacher asked me to illustrate a couple of children’s books for some colleges of his. I was allowed to sit outside under a tree and draw in the peaceful serenity of nature while the rest of the class was in the noisy class room. That may have been my happiest moments of school.
This was back in the seventies and eighties. There was very little know about being on the spectrum. I was never diagnosed, I was mostly invisible, just a painfully shy kid struggling through the social minefields of school. Art was my voice, my salvation and identity.
As an adult I have to be in the real world. I still try to draw and create every day. I post artwork on the internet and get my voice out through images. I donate artwork to groups working to save animals and to schools that has selected some of my art to teach to their students. As art and music is being excluded form more and more schools it pains me to know that others might not get the opportunity to express themselves through their artistic and musical abilities.
I like to paint wildlife and nature with acrylics and watercolors and draw with prisma color pencils, and with pen and ink. I also like to do nature and wildlife photography. My family is a major source of inspiration and encouragement for my artwork. I could not do it without them. I have had the privilege to have shown my art work in Oregon, Washington, California, and Arizona. I have also donated artwork to the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, Triple “L” Horse Rescue, and to the Save the Frogs! organization.
Header image: Nick Gustafson “Paint Can Cat”