Outside In: A Profile of Columbus Artist Wallace Peck

Emily Thompson
Columbus artist Wallace Peck

Wallace Peck is in his element. Sunlight fills Open Door Art Studio as he hunches over the sketchbook resting on his right thigh, his pencil flying across the open page. Other artists and staff members are bustling around him, but he sees only the image forming in front of him. He starts by sketching a large circle for the face. Next come half-moon ears on each side, hypnotic circles for eyes. The elongated triangle of a nose starts nearly at the hairline, and he draws the length of it down to the middle of the face.

He looks up at the subject-a visitor he's just met who's standing a few feet away from his paint-splattered chair-with squinted eyes, absorbing as many details as possible in a few short seconds. His dark-blue Blue Jackets cap tilts back down toward the page. He references the visitor a few more times, but as he fills in more detail, pressing his pencil harder with each line, his imagination seems to take over. The figure grows a square body and two stumpy legs that could pass as beaver tails. After a few more finishing touches, he pauses, takes a good look at his work and writes his first name in lowercase letters and last name in all capitals across the top of the page-his stamp of approval. He tears the page from his sketchbook and hands it to the visitor with no words, just a huge smile across his face.

"Hang onto that," says Sharon Dorsey, Open Door's volunteer coordinator. "I always tell anyone who leaves here with something he drew to hang onto it."

On this day, Wallace is drawing for fun. "I feel happy when I draw," he says. But drawing used to serve a different purpose in his life. Before Open Door-a daytime program for people with developmental disabilities-became his second home, before his first solo exhibition at a Short North gallery sold out in the first hour, before his artwork inspired the first lady of Ohio to start an exhibition series at the governor's residence and before he had a family who, although not related by blood, cares for and genuinely cares about him, he drew because it calmed him. When he was anxious, frustrated or scared, he would sit and draw picture after picture for hours at a time, and his problems would fade a little more with each line on the page.

Wallace Peck was born on Sept. 15, 1963. The baby of the family, Wallace grew up in Franklinton with his mother, father, two sisters and brother. He went to school for a few years, but when his mother became sick with cancer, she stopped sending him.

Sherry Syx, who had gone to school with one of his sisters, reconnected with Wallace after she and her husband moved into a house across the street from Wallace's family on Martin Avenue. Wallace was 17. "He would come over and sit and talk to my husband and smoke his cigars," Syx says.

By the time he was in his 20s, Wallace's brother, mother and father had died of different illnesses. He lived with other relatives, but they were overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for Wallace, who was born with a developmental disability. Although capable of carrying on conversations and making his own decisions, Wallace needs assistance with day-to-day care. He went years without any care at all. He spent most of his time alone, walking the streets of Franklinton. Police officers knew him well and often drove him home when he was out past curfew or wandering into unsafe areas of town.

Eventually, his walks led him to Gladden Community House, a United Way-affiliated nonprofit agency in Franklinton where Syx has worked as an administrative assistant in the community services department for more than 20 years. Wallace started stopping by to visit Syx and quickly befriended the staff. "My first memory of Wallace is driving into work on Martin," says Mardi Ciriaco, vice president of community services. "He was always on the porch, and he would always wave. He was kind of like the official greeter of people coming into the community."

As his visits to Gladden became more frequent over the years, the staff became concerned about Wallace. He would come in desperate need of a bath and a haircut. His teeth were rotting, and he was sickly thin. He was often distraught after confrontations with his caretakers. "There were times when he'd come in very upset, and he'd put his head down a lot on the front counter, very distressed," Ciriaco says.

Although he wasn't visiting Gladden for their services, the staff helped Wallace the same way they would any other client. "People come in all the time, and they're in crisis, adults and kids," Ciriaco says. "So we do whatever we need to do to take care of them for that 20 minutes to get them settled down enough so we can figure out what the issue is and resolve the problem or link them to the right services. So that could be giving a kid a toy, giving an adult a cup of coffee, a glass of water."

For Wallace, that distraction was a pencil and paper. "If he was upset or frustrated or something, first thing he'd do is come up there and say, 'I want a job,' " Syx says. "But then he would say, 'Can I have a pencil and paper?' I'd give it to him, and that calmed him down."

Says Ciriaco: "I think he started drawing because he spent a lot of time to himself, and it was a way to keep him occupied. And I think when he was upset and anxious, he would draw."

Drawing was just a temporary fix, though, and Ciriaco and Syx were determined to help him. "Wallace is a really good example of somebody who, at that point, was really falling through the cracks of the system. Because he did have an MRDD worker who had been involved with him for a number of years," Ciriaco says of the mental retardation and developmental disabilities (MRDD) specialist, who had been assigned to Wallace by the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities. "And we ended up getting involved because he kept coming to Gladden, but we're not really equipped. So we contacted the MRDD worker."

When the three met about seven years ago, they agreed Wallace's living situation wasn't working, and he needed to be moved to a group home. The problem was, Wallace didn't want to go. "Sometimes when I would come to the house to meet with Wallace and the MRDD worker, Wallace would not be there," Ciriaco says. "He would purposely run away. I think he thought we were trying to put him away. When we would talk about putting him in a group home, he didn't like that. He thought we were locking him away and he couldn't walk or go do things."

Because he didn't give his consent, they were stuck. "Wallace is a classic case of someone that is certainly functional enough to make his own decisions, so in order for somebody to make decisions for him, it would have to be court-ordered," Ciriaco says. "And that was something that nobody wanted to do. So we were stuck in this quagmire of nothing happening."

Still, they knew they had to try. The first step for Wallace to be admitted to a group home was for him to get a physical examination. So Syx took him to Lower Lights Christian Health Center for an exam. His poor physical health was immediately apparent, and the doctor called adult protective services. "That changed everything," Ciriaco says. The next day, he was placed in a respite home, temporary housing for people in crisis until they can move to a permanent home.

After 30 days in the respite home, Wallace moved to Park West Court Apartments, a division of the Columbus Center for Human Services. "That's when I think a lot of neat things started to happen," Ciriaco says. He got a job as a greeter at the Walmart on Georgesville Road, where he's since worked on and off, and he started receiving proper medical care. "He looked so different," Syx says.

At his own artist's reception celebrating his Short North mural, Wallace works the room at Lindsay Gallery with the skill of a politician. Immediately after Sharon Dorsey's talk about Open Door ends, without missing a beat, he reaches his hand to greet the nearest person. Anyone who knew him just seven years ago would barely recognize him now. Dressed in a black suit with a lavender shirt and dark-purple tie, he listens with interest as he chats with reception guests about how they've been since he's last seen them. By now, he's no stranger to meeting fans of his art. One guest is even wearing a Wallace Peck T-shirt. "People come in and want to buy my painted pictures and T-shirts and stuff like that," he says.

His success as an artist began when he started spending his days at Open Door five years ago. When he was placed in a group home, he was given a list of options for day programs and chose Open Door. "It was an easy fit for him because he already loved to draw," Dorsey says. Dorsey started at Open Door a year after Wallace began spending his days there. "That was when I met him, and it was magical," she says.

Through art education and help searching for inspiration, Open Door's art facilitators helped Wallace take his drawings to the next level, and he began painting colorful portraits of people, animals and sometimes buildings, using pictures and faces for inspiration. "I look in magazines with a bunch of people," says Wallace, who now lives with two roommates on the East Side with in-home care. "That's how I draw." His paintings quickly garnered a following, and he started showing them in exhibitions with other artists, including some at Open Door's gallery.

Dorsey immediately saw Wallace's work was exceptional, and she told her friend Duff Lindsay, owner of Lindsay Gallery in the Short North, about him. Lindsay specializes in folk and self-taught art. "She had told me about Wallace and that his work was really outstanding," Lindsay says. "She showed me some, and I was really taken with it. It's just so graphically arresting and colorful and joyful. It really grabbed me, and it grabs a lot of people. And then when I met Wallace, he is so much like his artwork. He is really a joyous person."

Lindsay was also impressed with Wallace's "consistency of vision." "That's what gallerists are looking for in an artist's work," he says. "An artist who hasn't yet decided who they are as an artist and how that manifests itself in their work and how they want to present themselves to the world in their art really isn't ready to be represented by a gallery. When I looked at a lot of Wallace's work, I realized that Wallace was surprisingly consistent and dedicated to his vision. You can't see a Wallace Peck painting and not instantly know that it's a Wallace Peck painting."

Because Wallace is an Open Door artist, Lindsay knows his work is his own. "We're pretty adamant about not doing what they call 'hand-over-hand work,' where you're taking somebody's hand and helping them," Dorsey says. "We try to stay out of the process as much as possible, while helping a person get from artist point A to artist point B."

Lindsay Gallery featured Wallace's work in his first solo exhibition in June 2013, and every painting sold in the first hour of the opening. "People were coming in and buying pieces as I was hanging them up," says Lindsay, who also selected one of Wallace's paintings for this year's Short North mural project. "Lady Liberty," his blue and gray interpretation of the Statue of Liberty, is displayed on a brick wall across the street from American Apparel.

His work also caught the attention of Karen Kasich, who's friends with Lindsay and came to the gallery to see Wallace's art. "I thought Wallace really has his own way of seeing things," Kasich says. "I just love the angles and lines of his paintings. So then I was thinking I would love to be able to help introduce him to a larger audience." That gave Kasich the idea to start Spotlight: Featured Artists at the Ohio Governor's Residence, a series that features artwork by four Ohio artists each year, exhibited in the foyer of the governor's residence, which welcomes 7,000 guests annually. Wallace was the first artist in the series, and Kasich later visited him at Open Door and bought his painting of a flamingo that's now hanging in a guest bedroom at the Kasichs' home near Westerville.

In addition to Lindsay Gallery and Open Door's gallery, Wallace has also shown his work at the Columbus Arts Festival, the Ohio State Fair, the Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center and Carnegie Gallery. In August, the Columbus Museum of Art purchased his "Brian and Bird" painting for its permanent collection.

Although Wallace's work looks contemporary with his bold color choices, it's difficult to categorize beyond that description. "That's where the term 'outsider art' is often used," Lindsay says. "It's a term that is kind of slipping in popularity because there are some people who feel that it marginalizes artists, that it's a pejorative, almost. I think that the intent of applying that term to artists is more to celebrate the purity of their work, to celebrate the fact that it's completely original and not influenced by art history and the art marketplace. So it's really hard to say, 'What does it look like?' Because it looks like a Wallace Peck."

Because Wallace is limited in his ability to express the meaning behind his work, it's also impossible to know how much his paintings reflect his literal perspective. "I suspect that there's a little bit of that in his work, his unique way of seeing. But I think it's also his sense of fun. I sometimes wonder if when I see, for example, the bird on this woman's shoulder (in a painting titled "Mary in Ohio"), I wonder if that cracks Wallace up, you know? Because he laughs a lot, and sometimes I wonder if Wallace is messing with us," Lindsay says with a laugh.

According to the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities, "developmental disability is defined as a severe, chronic disability that … is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or a combination of mental and physical impairments, other than a mental or physical impairment solely caused by mental illness." Wallace has never been diagnosed with anything more specific than a general developmental disability, but for him, it means he thrives in some areas of life, while other areas present challenges.

In many ways, he's a typical 50-year-old guy. He smokes cigars daily, he loves dogs (Alaskan huskies are his favorite) and, if you ask any of his friends, they'll tell you, "Wallace loves the ladies." ("He recently started drawing breasts on women," Dorsey says.) His appetite is endless, and his favorite restaurant is Golden Corral because he loves the buffet. He walks everywhere and enjoys fishing and going to Blue Jackets games. When he's not at work or at the studio, "I just go in my room, listen to my CD player," he says, adding his favorite musicians are Alan Jackson and Vince Gill.

"Wallace is a very kind of joyous and enthusiastic individual," says Dave Wible, the former executive director of the North Market who befriended Wallace after taking an interest in his artwork. "He has a tremendous sense of humor on one hand, and on the other hand he is tremendously sensitive. So he has all of those qualities that you would look for in a good friend. He's very adventurous and up for doing anything anyone wants to do."

One of Wallace's biggest daily challenges is remembering details as simple as what he had for lunch. "He's got some dementia issues," Dorsey says. "I wouldn't say severe, but he doesn't have very good short-term or long-term memory.

"No one has any way of knowing at what level he's remembering things," Dorsey continues. "I mean, there's things he says that you know are absolutely not true. Like at one point, he kept talking about getting a job at a pizza place. We were friends with the job coach at the time, and he was like, 'We've had no talk about working at a pizza place.' But Wallace just had it in his head that he was going to go work at a pizza place. So there are things that he thinks, and then they become real to him."

He also can't go out in public by himself and needs transportation assistance. "As accomplished as Wallace is in this part of his life, he can't even ride a bus by himself," Lindsay says. "And Wallace is so good at painting and so good at handling himself at an artist's reception, for example, in the governor's house. You have to remind yourself that he has that struggle. Although I've never gotten the impression that Wallace considered it a struggle."

Wallace's disability certainly hasn't hindered his social skills. "People just line up to meet him," Lindsay says. "But it's also funny to watch, some people just can't resist asking him, 'Well, what does this mean? What were you thinking of when you did this painting?' And Wallace will just say, 'Oh, this is Allison. I like Allison.' And that's enough."