After a 30-year career in still photography, Dennis Connors decided to expand into moving pictures, enrolled in Montclair State University’s filmmaking program, and created a short documentary film that is not only being screened at film festivals around the country, but is also winning awards.
Breaking Boundaries: the Art of Alex Masket (pictured), Connors’ short documentary film about a 23-year-old artist with severe autism, has won a Director’s Choice Award at the prestigious Black Maria Film and Video Festival, was named “Best Documentary” of the NYC Downtown Short Film Festival, claimed the Jury Award for “Best Short Film” at the Tulsa United Film Festival, and won an Award of Merit at the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood. Connors himself has also been honored by being selected as “The Next Great Filmmaker” at the Berkshire International Film Festival.
Produced over an 18-month period, the 18-minute film tells the story of the artist Alex Masket, who creates bold, individualistic works of art despite his disability. Although he is limited to a vocabulary of just 20 or 30 words, Masket is able to express himself through his art, and he does so with exuberance.
“Observing Alex at work is what prompted me to begin capturing him on video,” explains Connors. “Since Alex couldn’t tell me what he was about to do, trying to anticipate where to best place and focus the camera became a visual game of chess. And all the while I’m wondering ‘how is he doing this?’ He’s so engaged in what he’s doing. I wish I could be that free and spontaneous in anything I do.”
Although Connors did most of the work by producing, directing, and editing the film, he is quick to acknowledge the help of others. “Turning the hours of video footage and still photography into an 18-minute story couldn’t have been done without the invaluable help of my teachers and co-conspirators,” he says. “I'm especially grateful for the enormous contribution of Montclair composer and musician Diane Moser, whose jazz musical score keeps it all together. The original music was essential, and I’d have been really stuck without it.”
This being his first documentary and his first go-around with film festivals, Connors is still a bit stunned by his success. “I was amazed when I heard that the 29th Black Maria Film and Video Festival, the first one I entered, accepted me in January,” he recalls. “Eleven acceptances later, including ‘Best Documentary’ and a cash prize, certainly makes the effort seem more worthwhile. It’s added a lot of self confidence in my approach to my next project.”
Here's a Record story from Sept. about Masket's show at Ramapo College:
It's as if the stark white walls of the Kresge Gallery at Ramapo College are being attacked by color from the bottom up. The art is spread across the floor and stacked four and five canvases deep against the walls. Walk into the room and colors, letters and numbers seem to jump to greet you. There is a sense of movement, the slightly unsettling feeling that the pieces are about to crawl up and cover the walls.
Sydney Jenkins, director of art galleries at Ramapo, describes it as a "riot of color." As he prepares to install the exhibit, Jenkins searches for a way to organize the pieces so as not to overwhelm gallery visitors, as well as for the perfect spot for his personal favorite — a striking, 8-by-12, black-and-white piece made especially for the exhibition.
Alex Masket, the 23-year-old artist, never made anything that big before. He spent most of his life in a Westfield home that put size limitations on his creations. Recently, though, his family moved to Westchester County, and space is no longer an issue.
Masket is completely self-taught and has freedoms unimaginable to most other artists. He doesn't have to buy his materials or make money for rent. He isn't worried about critics or a judgmental art world. He doesn't care. Really. But he's happy to stand in the spotlight while others admire his work. On the way to a show he might say, "I am a movie star."
But this isn't some independently wealthy, self-absorbed artist in action. "I am a movie star" is actually one of the few things Alex can say. He is severely autistic and what his mother, Elaine, calls functional non-verbal. He knows maybe 50 words, by her estimate, but he mainly communicates through sounds, facial expressions and his art.
That art can be seen in "Alex Masket: A View With a Room," which runs through Oct. 6. Running along with the show is a documentary, "Breaking Boundaries: The Art of Alex Masket."
Upon first seeing the art, the instinct is to try to make sense of the letters and numbers, the overlapping colors of paint marker, duct tape and stickers. You attempt to organize words from letters, see a system in the numbers. You try to separate the work from Alex's story. You try to connect it to his story. Then you find yourself just standing there mesmerized by the colors and patterns.
"It's fascinating to know the back story, but if I came onto his work cold, I would still have a very positive response," says Jenkins, who has worked with many "outsider" artists who are self-taught. He often hears the word naïve associated with these artists' work, but he says that doesn't come into play here.
"I don't see naïve at all in what he's doing," Jenkins says. "It looks like a very sophisticated selection, when you see his taping and the use of color and abstraction."
The Ramapo exhibition is co-sponsored by the college's Office of Specialized Services and presented in recognition of Disabilities Awareness Month. It seems like just the kind of association Elaine Masket would avoid.
"It's not like there's Alex and then there's the autism," she says. "That's who he is. I don't try to run away from that. But I find that people look at the art through a different lens, and I don't like that. I think it's unavoidable, but I don't like it."
She wants people to simply see the art, something even she couldn't do early on. When Alex was young, he would take anything adhesive — tape, stamps, stickers — and put them anywhere and everywhere. As a mother, Elaine's first reaction is not admiration for the artistic achievement. For her, his creations often just elevated her fears about his autism and future.
"I was always looking for developmental milestones," she says. "The art materials frequently became an indication of a milestone that wasn't happening. If you give a child LEGOs and they don't make a house, but they make these incredibly beautiful patterns … I was appreciating the beauty of the patterns, but it was simultaneously reinforcing my panic."
Steve Masket, Alex's father, saw the beauty immediately — when the Chinese checkers were lined up against the wall or the LEGOs were stacked or the stickers were placed with purpose, focus, intensity and joy.
When Alex's older brother Will gave him a box of colored duct tape, Alex covered the walls in his room. When his family moved, a real estate broker told the family they would have to lower the selling price of the house because of it. The room was carefully deconstructed and has been rebuilt as part of this exhibition. Standing in it is almost disorienting. If things continue to progress for Alex, the room might one day be worth more than that house.
The exhibition at Ramapo is Alex's fifth solo show, and he is preparing for three others this fall. His parents now work for him, preparing canvases, setting up shows and looking out for his best interests – a complex job of caring for their son, navigating the art world and persuading people to see the art, not the autism.