Friday, October 22, 2010

Autistic sisters in Massachusetts find their bliss as artists, weavers

From The Boston Globe. (Thanks to Barbara for the tip.)

As sisters who are two years apart, Julia and Lilly Herlihy have a lot in common. They attend the same school and enjoy puzzles and using the computer. Both love music and the beach.

“They hang out well,’’ said their mother, Nancy LeGendre of Gloucester. “They like each other.’’

Julia, 21, and Lilly, 19, are also developmentally delayed, autistic, and nonverbal. Which makes their other shared trait — an interest in and talent for art — so unusual. And art has always been a big part of their lives.

“There are a lot of kids on the autism spectrum who have no interest in art,’’ LeGendre said. “There are a lot of sensory issues. The art materials themselves can be off-putting, even offensive, to some of the kids. Fortunately, the girls like all sorts of art-creating materials.’’

“Textiles in Motion,’’ an exhibition of their ink drawings and hand-woven fabric pieces, is at Northeast Arc’s Gallery @ Southside, 6 Southside Road in Danvers, Mass.

“This is very exciting,’’ said Suzanne Ryan, director of volunteer services at Northeast Arc, a regional organization that provides a range of services to people with developmental disabilities. “I think the public will be pleasantly surprised.’’

LeGendre said her daughters did not show signs of their disabilities until about age 5, but their problems have progressively become more severe. “The difference between their chronological age and cognitive age has really widened over the years,’’ she said.

She added that no specific diagnosis or cause has been pinpointed. “We have had the most thorough investigation continuing over 15 years and we still don’t have an answer,’’ said LeGendre, a former research scientist. “Will we ever have an answer? I don’t think so.’’

LeGendre said like most parents of young children, and as an artist herself specializing in art quilts, she always had creative materials available to her daughters at home, and spent time with them coloring, painting, and making collages.

“As their disability has emerged and become more prominent, art making is something they were able to maintain an interest in,’’ she said.

The sisters went on to make “markings’’ on paper with pens and sometimes splashes of watercolor. They each have distinctive markings and often put them on each other’s pieces. “It doesn’t bother them,’’ LeGendre said. “They make art without ego.’’

Their drawings in the exhibition, part of Northeast Arc’s ArtWorks program, are abstract.

As the sisters got older and their needs more significant, painting became difficult, so LeGendre introduced them to fiber arts. About five years ago, they began weaving yarn by hand with a large needle, and moved on to a loom.

LeGendre has several looms at home, where Julia and Lilly live with her and her husband, Walter Herlihy. Their school, the Northshore Education Consortium in Beverly, also has a loom, donated by a staff member.

Occupational therapist Lucy Cheever helped introduce the sisters to weaving, and works with them three days a week on their projects, which include colorful wool scarves and other textiles. Other staff members help them at the loom two days a week.

“Although they need a lot of guidance to keep them to the task, I am trying to maximize their independence,’’ Cheever said. “They probably will always need someone with them to do their fiber art. But the more we can have them doing it on their own, the more it is theirs.’’

She added it’s exciting that they make choices about colors and textures.

LaGendre said she has made purses from some of the girls’ textiles, which she sells. And their scarves have sold, as well.

“They have come a long way in a few years,’’ Cheever said. They have moved from using a standing loom to a more complicated floor loom, which requires the use of hands and feet. And the work has become more sophisticated, she said.

As for how weaving benefits the sisters, Cheever said, “they definitely enjoy it.’’

“It’s very rhythmic, soothing, and predictable,’’ LeGendre added. She said Julia, especially, “loves having someone sit next to her. With autism we think of the person being isolated and not wanting human company, but Julia is very sweet and very much craves human company.’’

And, she said, “we can hope they are learning something. But it is as much about building community around them as it is building skills. I feel I have to create a community for my kids for their lifetime.’’