Arts: ComFest funds a breakthrough workshop for artists with autism

Melissa Starker, Columbus Alive

That buzz you pick up from the beer booths at ComFest produces results that go beyond your day-drunk hangover. Profits from beer sales not only fuel the weekend-long peace party, they fund ComFest's efforts to enrich the community through its annual grants program.

Since 2006, tens of thousands of dollars have been distributed by ComFest's grants committee to causes like refugee services, career training and sustainable development, and organizations such as the Columbus AIDS Task Force and WCBE-FM.

For 2016, a total of $15,000 was awarded to 11 community organizations, including Franklinton art hot spot the Vanderelli Room. Director Alicia Jean Vanderelli and artist-in-residence Walter Herrmann have used the gift to create an intensive two-week workshop for young artists with autism, which kicked off in the art space this week.

The program is guided by an inclusive approach to making art, in which teens with autism and other disabilities are encouraged to learn and create work alongside typically developing peers. Open to ages 13-20, the workshop is introducing participants to different materials and techniques through visiting tutors like ceramicist Eric Rausch, mixed-media artist Samantha Knight and polymer clay creator Dana Harper. Vanderelli's brother Donnie, a chef, has even turned the group's lunch preparations into a collaborative, hands-on activity.

Vanderelli and Herrmann give all credit for the program's inspiration to Henry Hess, the autistic 16-year-old who, despite limited verbal skills, has recently become a local art star for his intricate line drawings of favorite movie characters. Earlier this year, Hess was introduced to a national audience when Short North gallerist Duff Lindsay took his work to New York's Outsider Art Fair.

Herrmann and Vanderelli met Hess in 2014, shortly after his parents secured a studio space at 400 West Rich to house the remarkable volume of works on paper he was producing. They were instantly impressed with what they saw and worked with Hess' parents, Tom and Amy, to connect the young artist with Lindsay. They've also spent time mentoring Hess, utilizing Herrman's background as an educator and Vanderelli's previous experience providing care for individuals with special needs.

"Once we began working with him on a regular basis, Tom and Amy really wanted him to meet other artists," Vanderelli explained. "We'd be with Henry, talking about our work and I thought, 'This has got to be the most boring conversation to him.' I want kids to be able to meet kids and talk about 16-year-old stuff and make work while they're at it, so Walt and I started brainstorming."

Herrmann reached out to artists with children at the appropriate age to see if their kids would be interested in working alongside Henry. The first collaboration to come out of this, a "Wizard of Oz" costume created by Hess and the daughter of artist Tiffany Boggins, encouraged Herrmann and Vanderelli to keep going. Now they're bringing together a half-dozen young artists in the workshop. They intend to continue the program next summer and eventually develop an exhibition component.

According to Amy Hess, who works as program director for the Center for Autism Services and Transition at OSU Medical Center's Hilliard facility, the impact of these efforts on her son has been "profound."

"Henry's career as an artist has been a very unexpected surprise to our family and Henry has enjoyed every minute of the adventure," she said. "While Henry's impact of autism is expressive language, meaning he is a man of few words, it is easy to see how proud and excited he is when we have art events to attend."

Hess also explained the Vanderelli workshop fills a unique niche in local outreach to individuals with autism and special needs, as it encourages understanding and focuses on an age range dealing with the specific developmental challenge of transitioning to adulthood.

"There are not many art classes like this … with individuals with autism in an inclusive environment," she noted. "There are some amazing adult classes and programs around town [like Open Door Art Studio], but for teens it has been tough to find."

And this opportunity is already making a dent with her son. "The class at the Vanderelli offers Henry the opportunity to work alongside peers and experience a variety of art making, mediums and materials that we have not been able to find before," she said. "On his first day he made the most amazing drawing - and it was not of a movie character. This class is broadening his perspective as an artist."

"It's going so good," Vanderelli said after wrapping up day two of the workshop. "The kids are so accepting. Tomorrow, Walt will create earth works with them and I can't wait to see how everyone interacts."

For the curious, photos of the playful, colorful work being created by the workshop's students can be found on the Vanderelli Room's Facebook page.