Universe people

The prevalent interpretation of quantum physics suggests that the universe is filled with — perhaps even made of — elemental, creative “stuff.” Processed through the filters of humanity — ego, experience, mind, physiology — this stuff becomes reality. People who channel it consciously are artists.

Twenty-five-year-old Jacob Holmes is one of these people. Just ask him. Eyes averted, he’ll tell you (in rapid, clipped speech): “I’m an artist. I’m a very good artist.” Or take a look around the downtown Asheville art gallery that bears his name, and decide for yourself. You’ll probably agree with his assessment.

Jacob’s Window, nestled in a sunny, inviting space on Broadway, features the work of Jacob and other so-called “outsider artists.” Sometimes called “naive” or “visionary” art, outsider art is loosely — often controversially — defined as the work of untrained or otherwise nonmainstream artists. (The term is tricky because it suggests a schism between learned — read “real” — art and the outsider artist’s more informal approach, implying that the latter’s work happens almost by accident.)

Jacob falls into the “outsider” realm because he manifests a number of behaviors that brand him as autistic: He struggles with verbal communication and social interaction. He has, for most of his life, recoiled from physical contact with other people. He nurses obsessions — with police officers and all things Asian, for instance. He loathes change and is lost without his routines: sweeping the sidewalk outside the gallery first thing in the morning; greeting passers-by; lunch (which he shares with the neighboring store’s blue-eyed dog); then several hours in his studio at the back of the gallery, spent painting or sketching.

And, like about 10 percent of all individuals diagnosed with autism, Jacob possesses exceptional, highly specialized abilities. His sophisticated artwork — which he began producing before his third birthday — is one example. His photographic memory for detail and dates is another:

“When did you move to Asheville from Florida, Jacob?”

His clipped response is immediate: “March 7, 1997.”

Just a few months later, CNC/Access teamed employee Frances Domingues, a community-based inclusion worker, with Jacob. It was Frances’ job to help him function more independently by integrating him into the community. Domingues, herself an artist, encouraged Jacob to paint as a way to “work out” his psychic knots. Almost immediately, however, she began to see Jacob’s art as something more.

Little wonder. Jacob’s paintings are striking and sophisticated, stylistically and thematically varied. He works primarily in watercolor, occasionally switching to colored pens and pencils. Some of his pieces reveal an almost obsessive attention to detail — colored-pen sketches composed of tens of thousands of slender, meticulous strokes. Others border on the abstract — broad, amorphous swaths of rich color. His best works lie somewhere in between — almost-eerie paintings with titles such as “Good, Talking to Herself,” “The Tin Man and the Ghost” and “Universe People.” The beings that populate these pieces have clear, recognizable forms, often built from a precise, almost cloisonne-like detail. The landscapes vary from the vaguely familiar to the entirely abstract.

Now look again. You’re sure to see something new, or something you saw before, but in a different way.

Domingues saw in these canvases a means for Jacob and other outsider artists to become financially independent. With help from her colleagues at CNC/Access, she wrangled temporary funding through a North Carolina Grant for the Disadvantaged and from local charitable sources. Others, such as Domingues’ friend Theresa Hicks, joined the cause, volunteering her management skills to help with day-to-day operations. Dale Roberts, who serves on the gallery’s board, suggested the name “Jacob’s Window” and contributed his wide-ranging web of connections. One of these was fellow board member Wayne Sluder, the manager of Sluder’s Furniture, who helped furnish the gallery with comfortable rocking chairs and large display baskets. Christopher Mellow, a local horticultural artist, added his unique plantings to the store’s inviting atmosphere. For their part, Domingues and Jacob provided the brute labor — scrubbing the space spotless; repainting the walls a soft, glowing off-white; and arranging and rearranging the canvases and sculptures until the displays themselves were works of art.

Jacob’s Window became a reality when its doors opened this summer. Business, according to Domingues and Hicks, is good.

“It varies from week to week, though. Some weeks, we sell a lot. Others, not a thing,” admits Domingues.

Their grant is set to expire in the summer of 2001, and Domingues is exploring other funding sources — but she also hopes that Jacob’s Window can become self-supporting. And if the store folds?

“We’ve learned a lot. Jacob and I have both gained a lot.”

According to Jacob’s mother, Barbara Lundberg (with whom he lives), the store has been very therapeutic for her son. “He used to stiffen up, draw away from people if they wanted to shake hands. Now he approaches people, he extends his hand to them. And although his verbal skills have always been borderline, now he tries to communicate verbally more.”

The gallery has benefited Barbara, too: “When you realize your child is autistic, you go through this period where you have to close down all those dreams you had for him. You have to acknowledge that he will never be a policeman, or a fireman, or an engineer, or an accountant. He will not — and you will not — lead the life you may have imagined. But the gallery has given him something of his own.”

And it seeks to give other artists something as well. The store’s mission statement (penned by Dale Roberts) reads: “By establishing a gallery in which Jacob can present work by other artists, including artists with disabilities, we seek to demonstrate that people with disabilities have a vision and a voice that can be expressed through art. By enabling Jacob to host other artists in his gallery, we seek to reverse the paradigm of the disabled person as a passive recipient of services, and to establish a new paradigm: The disabled person as an entrepreneur and as a creative artist who serves the community.”

But does setting the artwork of the disabled aside, in a gallery of its own, accomplish that? Or does it further the elitism implicit in calling the work of some groups of people “outsider” and the works of others “insider”?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. But I would ask you to consider the example of revered Impressionist painter Claude Monet. The artist suffered from glaucoma, and at the end of his lengthy life, he was nearly blind. Yet he continued painting the world as he saw it — through clouded eyes. How many people who adorn their homes with Monet prints know that? And how many care?

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