Stillwater man with autism rarely speaks, but often uses art
By MARY DIVINE
May. 12, 2018
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The floral still life looked perfectly fine.
The purple, pink and white flowers, bright-green stems and brown pot were centered. A small window in the upper-left corner added dimension. The background colors were pleasing.
Other artists might have declared it done.
Not Devin Wildes.
Wildes headed to a paper cutter at the other end of Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in St. Paul and began slicing his picture into 1-inch strips. Then he took the 11 pieces of paper and placed them next to each other in an off-kilter way.
Glued onto a larger canvas, the still life — a birthday present for his grandmother — was transformed into a piece of modern art.
"He knows exactly what he's doing," said his mother, A.J. Paron-Wildes. "He thinks very methodically. He has it all planned out."
The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that Wildes, who has a severe form of autism, struggles to pay attention. He has trouble learning and interacting with others. He rarely speaks.
But when he was 5 years old, Wildes learned to draw.
"He would bring home beautiful stuff from kindergarten," Paron-Wildes said. "He started to seek our approval. He would go, 'Look! Look what I made!' and you could see the joy in his face. He was good at art because he's super highly visual, but I was, like, 'I need him to speak. I need him to do math, and I need him to excel at school .' "
When he was 15, his mother attended a creativity conference.
"I thought, 'What am I doing?'" she said. "'Let's have him spend the summer doing the things he loves.' So that summer, I pulled him from summer school and sent him to art camps the whole summer. He was a different kid. He loved it."
Wildes, 22, now spends five days a week at Interact Center, whose mission is to create art that challenges perceptions of disability. The center is licensed by the state Department of Human Services, through a contract with Hennepin County.
Wildes lives with his parents, Pete and A.J., and his younger sister, Ava, 9, in Oak Park Heights. He takes Metro Mobility to and from the center, paying for the transportation and the program with a form of Medicaid assistance known as a "waiver."
About 70 artists are enrolled in Interact's open-studio program and attend three to five days a week, said Erin McKillip, visual arts client services coordinator for Interact. Guest artists teach classes, and attendees have access to unlimited supplies.
At Interact, Wildes is "extremely focused" and "knows exactly what he wants to create," McKillip said.
"He has his own vision and his own plan, so he's already fairly established," she said. "We're just helping him update his résumé and making sure that he has as many opportunities to show his work as possible. He loves to speak to the public, he loves sharing his artwork. It's wonderful. He's very talented, very gifted, and we're lucky that he's here."
Wildes works in multiple mediums, including pencil, sculpture, videography, jewelry making, screen printing and painting.
He sells digital reprints of his artwork through Minneapolis-based Art Force Academy; proceeds from his sales go to an art-therapy program at Fraser, a nonprofit organization that provides services for people with special needs. Prices start at $35.
When he draws, Wildes puts pencil to paper and draws in one movement.
"He doesn't sketch," Paron-Wildes said. "He just draws it all at once. You can see how deliberative all of his strokes are. It just comes right out, which drives me crazy. I have to sketch."
He prefers working with markers instead of paint because he "hates getting his hands messy," she said. "That's part of his sensory issues. He has more control with markers."
He creates whatever is on his mind. Dinosaurs. Godzilla. Dogs. Orangutans. Warriors. A bowling skeleton. The Mall of America.
"People wonder what's going on with autistic kids because it looks like they're in another world," said best friend Nick Dinzeo, 22, of Stillwater. "When he draws something on paper, it is, literally, what he is thinking in his head," Dinzeo said. "When Devin is drawing his art, he is showing what's going on. He's showing us, 'This is what I'm thinking of. This is what I'm interested in.' "
The boys met in 2006 when Wildes and his family moved to Stillwater. Paron-Wildes sent out a flier to her son's fourth-grade classmates at Stonebridge Elementary asking if any students would be interested in having a play date with Wildes; Dinzeo volunteered.
Dinzeo, who works as a special-education paraprofessional at Stillwater Area High School and is studying special education at Rasmussen College, said his favorite piece by Wildes is "Dog," which features a close-up of a dog's head.
"I show that to people, and they can't believe how talented he is," Dinzeo said.
Wildes takes commissions and paints a lot of animals and flowers because "they sell well," Paron-Wildes said.
He also paints self-portraits. In one, his image is surrounded by years written on the blue background. Several are circled — 1969, 1972, 1993, 1995, 2008 — to mark his family's birth years and his parents' wedding date, he said.
Paron-Wildes, the regional architectural and design manager for Allsteel, a commercial furniture manufacturer, often travels for work and sends photos to Wildes for inspiration.
"I sent him a picture of wallpaper from the Standard Hotel in (Los Angeles) because I thought it was cool, and he sent back a painting of it," Paron-Wildes said, thumbing through her text messages on her iPhone.
"I sent him this picture. I was in San Francisco. This is the Fine Arts Museum," she said. "And he just paints it and sends it back. There's, like, no talking."
Sometimes he responds; sometimes he doesn't.
"That's the fun thing," she said. "I send him interesting stuff, but I never know what he's going to respond to."
On April 5, Wildes texted a photo of a painting he had just completed of the new St. Croix River bridge at sunset.
"He just took a picture and sent it to me. No caption. Nothing," she said. "We speak through pictures."
Wildes, who trained with Stillwater artist Karron Nottingham, started getting known for his artwork a few years ago.
In 2014, Wildes took first place in painting at Da Vinci Fest, an art and science fair sponsored by the Partnership Plan for Stillwater-area students. "Garden Party" shows a bug's-eye view of a picnic, with hands swatting the bugs away. It was coupled with an artist's statement that talked about how Wildes sometimes feels like that bug.
"It's his perception of what it's like to be the spider and the fly," Paron-Wildes told the Pioneer Press in 2014. "He wanted it a little gory because, you know, bugs are sort of gross. That's grass, and that's blood. When I first got it, I hung it upside down, and he yelled at me."
Two years later, he and his mother were featured speakers at the PeaceLove Peace of Mind Storytellers event at Rhode Island College in Providence. The subject of their talk: "The Boy Who Learned To Speak Through Art."
"Grown men were crying," Paron-Wildes said. "Even though he can't speak very well, he's used to looking for visual cues. It's easier for him to look for an audience's visual cues than one on one. It's a little less intense.
"He's better than most speakers, especially his timing. He'll do actions sometimes because he knows they can't quite understand what he is saying. He's amazing."
The mother-son duo has since presented at several conferences and events, including the Business Innovation Factory's Annual Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence.
READ BACK: Two boys. One uncommon bond: Nick Dinzeo and Devin Wildes at 13
AND: Graduating Stillwater buddies never let autism get in the way of friendship
TPT's "Minnesota Original" recently featured Wildes in an online video, "Turning Autism into Artistry," that is expected to air in the fall.
Producer David Roth said he learned about Wildes through a friend and decided to feature him after seeing some of his paintings.
"I loved how impressionistic and playful his art was," he said. "What really nailed it for me was seeing a video of Devin introducing his work to a large audience. I knew this was a special story."
Talking about his art has given Wildes a sense of purpose, Paron-Wildes said.
"You think about this as we raise our children. We are trying to make them independent. We're trying to get them to master some sort of skill, find a career, but we don't always teach them purpose," she said. "That's what Devin has taught me. His purpose is not just to do art — it's to talk about art and show art."
"We were at a KT Tunstall concert, and I turned to him at intermission and said, 'Do you like it?' He said, 'Yes. OK. My turn.' "
"He has found a purpose in his life that is driving him, and he wants to share it with people," she said.
"It's so pure. It's so authentic. I couldn't ask for anything more."
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com