by Debra Hosseini
“I believe art is the answer and ‘cures’ my Asperger’s. It’s important to feed the mind with what it thrives on and what it understands. Yes, I see the world differently, but I’m my version of ‘normal.’” Nekea Blagoev.
Originally printed in Australian Autism Aspergers Network magazine Winter 2013.
Before she walked or talked, Nekea Blagoev could draw.
She drove her mother crazy, drawing on walls and cutting up bedspreads, creating one creation after another. A withdrawn child with no siblings and not many friends, she entertained herself for hours on end.
“When other little girls wanted dolly magazines, I wanted pens and pencils. I would spend hours each day drawing and making up board games, jigsaw puzzles and stories.”
Growing up, Nekea felt like she didn’t belong. Sounds and sights overwhelmed her. Tags on clothes scratched her sensitive skin and rough fabrics bothered her.
She had significant delays in developing speech. She was mostly nonverbal only talking to people who she knew well, and then with one-word responses. Until she was in her late twenties, she never had a meaningful conversation.
Adding to her feelings of alienation, she developed involuntary facial tics when nervous.
As a teenager she was diagnosed with depression.
Despite all these challenges, she received a degree in visual arts. Instead of pursuing a career in art, she decided to follow another of her passions – cooking. She possessed a sensitive palate being able to discern subtleties in flavors. She won apprentice chef of the year and third place in Master of the Kitchen on Hayman Island. Nekea refers to her culinary inventions as creating art on a plate.
Today Nekea is twenty-nine and working as an artist. All along the way, art has sustained her.
In 2011, things changed for Nekea. She was given a diagnosis of “Asperger’s Syndrome.”
Many might think receiving a diagnosis of Asperger’s would be traumatic. For Nekea, it was liberating.
“When I was first diagnosed, I felt instant relief. After living most of my life in the dark, there were finally answers to so many of the questions I have asked myself. In some odd way I finally felt ‘’normal.” All the odd things I had previously experienced about myself were just part of having Asperger’s.
“The diagnosis helped me come out of my shell. It gave me a voice. All my life I was more non-verbal than not. Only through my art was I able to express who I was inside. Now I wonder, if I had been diagnosed earlier, would interventions have prevented many of the issues I’ve had to deal with and am still working on today?”
The Asperger’s diagnosis explained why she had trouble fitting into the world. Her withdrawal was natural – a coping technique.
Because of the Asperger’s many challenges plague Nekea daily. She has spatial and balance -issues – not knowing where her body stops and other things start. “I bump into things. I’m scared to death to drive some days because my perception of distance isn’t accurate. My eyes are super-sensitive. Sounds can be piercing to my ears.”
Like many savants who are also on the autism spectrum, Nekea has a photographic memory of images, people, conversations, and even streets. She attributes her meltdowns to being overwhelmed with information.
“Sometimes I feel my brain can’t process one more bit of information,” she says.
Despite all this, Nekea is optimistic: “It’s how you choose to deal with and overcome challenges that makes you a better person.”
When feeling overwhelmed, she has learned to step back and assess situations. “If it’s not life-threatening, I know it’s me, not what’s happening externally,” she says.
Nekea has worked diligently since her diagnosis on her speech. She’s read books, listened to CDs and attended workshops to overcome her difficulty speaking and interacting. For the first time in her life she had a meaningful conversation.
In 2012, she challenged herself further by becoming an internet radio host forcing herself to interview people of diverse backgrounds.
“The radio show was a stepping stone to help me talk more. Since then, I haven’t been able to shut up! My art work has taken off so much that I no longer have time for the radio. The show helped me get over my nerves. Life has a funny way of helping you with the things you need to improve on.”
Nekea believes the Asperger’s helps her art by making her more creative.
“I believe art is the answer and ‘cures’ my Asperger’s. It’s important to feed the mind with what it thrives on and what it understands. Yes, I see the world differently, but I’m my version of ‘normal’ in here,” she says tapping her chest. “Asperger’s has given me the gift of art, writing, jewelry-making, poetry, comics, cooking, and photography. It has given me a creative mind and way of thinking,” she says.
Not only is Nekea a professional artist, she is a professional photographer, writer, and poet.
In order to accomplish all she has, she taught herself time-management techniques and carries a sketchbook in which she constantly sketches her ideas.
“Each year I write a list of goals – everything I want to achieve within the year. This keeps me grounded and focused. My goals this year are to keep on track with my performance and momentum, and increase my level of success,” she says.
Nekea is disciplined and structured in her approach to her art.
Her day starts mid-morning. She silences her phone in her art studio and begins her work by organizing her paint brushes, paint tins and smashed glass pieces. Her art studio is connected to her home with a view out French doors to a luscious garden and a pond with a little waterfall.
“It’s important to my creative process to work in an organized, inspiring environment. I can’t have distractions like the phone. When I’m on a roll I go into a trance and it’s as if I’m one-with-the-painting. The phone ringing would interrupt that oneness and it’s just too hard to get it back if I lose it.”
Nekea has written inspirational quotes on her walls:
“I am a successful famous artist;”
“You are what you think.”
“These quotes keep me dreaming,” she says. Today she is in a lively mood and turns on dance music as she starts her process.
“The music depends on my mood, and what it is that I’m trying to create. If the painting needs attention or purity, I paint with silence, eliminating any outside influence. If I’m painting something that’s colourful and fun, I like to listen to dance or pop music.
If I’m painting something dramatic, I’ll listen to soft rock or mellow music. If I’m doing line-work, I listen to techno.
Music affects the way I paint and the results of what I create is different depending on what I’m listening to.”
Nekea’s art is elaborate and requires differing techniques for each stage. She describes an uncontrollable surge between her brain and her hand over which has no control. “It simply spills out onto the canvas.”
One part of the process of creating her art involves smashing glass into small fragments about the size of a fingernail. She then painstakingly sands each tiny piece so the edges aren’t sharp. Then she places these pieces of glass, one piece at a time, like a jigsaw puzzle onto her painting.
“Glass can be used in different ways, I also sometimes crush glass down to a sand and use this mixture for beach scenes. Coloured glass and different shapes of glass create different effects.”
The process of creating her glass jigsaw puzzle-effect requires much patience and precision. Her creation of board games and jigsaw puzzles when she was young laid the groundwork for her art today.
One of Nekea’s first solo exhibitions was held in the dark. Everyone who attended was handed a torch to light their way through the exhibit. The torchlight had the effect of making the paintings glow, adding a three dimensional aspect to their appeal.
“My intention is to create works that shine and glisten, coming to life before the observer’s eyes. I want people to feel the emotion, the essence, the vapours of a scene as if they are there. To open the mind’s eye and see what’s not there is the ultimate experience,” Nekea muses.
Because exhibitions can be overwhelming for people with sensory issues, Nekea has learned to breathe and relax. “I empty my mind of negative thoughts about what could go wrong, replacing them with positive thoughts. I imagine everything running smoothly and all the paintings selling. I draw a picture of how it’s going to turn out. An hour before the ribbon is cut for the opening of an exhibition, I meditate.”
When Nekea needs a pick-me-up, she only has to read the comments in her guest book. “I see all the people who have commented and enjoyed my art work and I think of all those people whom I have given smiles to. This keeps me going so I am able to amaze the next person.”
Most artists are fortunate if they sell one or two pieces at an exhibition. It is not unusual for Nekea to sell all the art on display on opening night of one of her exhibits.
In 2011, she won the People’s Choice Award for Mackay’s Art on Show out of over 241 entries for her art piece “Freeze Frame.” Although her art is in demand in galleries in the United States, she doesn’t think she will be exhibiting there anytime soon. She has trouble keeping up with the demand for her art in her home country of Australia.
One of the successes she is most proud of is her art being converted into a postage stamp for Global Autism Awareness Day, which has allowed it to be viewed all over the world.
Nekea’s success is due not only to her creativity and passion, but to understanding herself through her Asperger’s diagnosis . Her ability to overcome challenges that most would see as permanent barriers is inspirational to all who meet her.
The magical world Nekea captures is not only through her art, but through her life story, which changes with each new obstacle she overcomes.
Nekea Blagoev is an artist featured in The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions. Buy it here.