A COMPLETE PORTRAIT
By Steve Desroches
As an artist Deborah Martin explores the themes of isolation, home, and memory. Living in the desert town of Sky Valley, California, she’s painted the Salton Sea and the community that surrounds the inland body of water that is shrinking due to continual drought and the increased pressure on the Colorado River, as well as “Slab City,” a collection of old concrete slabs from the World War II era when the barracks of Camp Dunlap stood there. Now, it’s home to a community that abandoned traditional society in what some call “The Last Free Place in America.” Her oil paintings have also captured the empty or dying towns of the Heartland as well as the forces of erosion and development on the Outer Cape and how they can so quickly change the landscape or completely transform what was once familiar.
In what may seem like a big departure, Martin is now working on a new artistic pursuit with Portraits of Autism, which will have its first exhibition starting this week at Art Market Provincetown Gallery (AMP). The show features portraits of children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) in this deeply personal work. For many years Martin worked with children and adults with special needs, and as an artist she wanted to draw attention to the challenges these people and their families face. In particular, she was drawn to the problem when these children turn 21 and are no longer eligible for federal support so families are forced to navigate the often confusing maze of state bureaucracy, or find that their state offers no assistance at all. In addition, people with disabilities are not often represented in many forms of media, something that is also true for fine art. Portraits of Autism provides multiple opportunities for a better understanding of autism as it presents each subject with not only a highly skilled technical ability, but a compassionate viewpoint to show each child as a complete person not only defined by their disability.
“When I’m painting the child I’m really trying to know that child,” says Martin. “I really spend time before I settle on an image. I want to bring forward something about that child, their strength, their character, as honest as possible.”
Once the idea for the project came to Martin, she allowed it to develop organically with the mindful wandering that she’s followed through her life as an artist. She found the subjects for her paintings largely through social media, or by referral from friends. Numbers fluctuate slightly, but the Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 out of every 88 children are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Family and loved ones of those with autism often form tight bonds, and Martin found many who were delighted to have their child as part of this artistic advocacy. Regardless of their current age, Martin paints the person with ASD as a young child based on submitted photos, and future paintings will feature the same subjects throughout their adolescence into adulthood.
Many of those featured in Martin’s work are non-verbal or have limited communication skills. This, matched with an ignorance of what autism is and what it means, can isolate those with the disorder and those who love and take care of them, which is again, that theme that is so often the focus of Martin’s artistic viewpoint. The general unawareness of autism can often lead to fear or discomfort, which is in part why a show like this can give the viewer an opportunity to explore their own feelings and knowledge of the disorder with the space for introspection, while also experiencing a deep connection as Martin presents each child with an intensity and intimacy. Throughout their lives, people can lack understanding and view those with autism as “rude,” “mentally ill,” or “dangerous,” says Martin. But the more one is educated, compassion grows, anxiety dissipates, and society expands to make room for those previously pushed aside.
“This project is much more than this first show,” says Martin. “It’s the very beginning and I thought Provincetown would be a welcoming place to start.”