Saturday, December 10, 2011

NY city homeless woman finds refuge in art, creates comic book about her Asperger's

From The NY Times:

Leironica Hawkins recalls always having “social problems, sensory issues and bouts of depression,” while growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as well as behavioral tics like self-rocking and involuntary hand twitches. Finally, at age 28, she was given a diagnosis: Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, for which she has never received treatment.

After many years of family turmoil, short-lived jobs and psychiatric difficulties, Ms. Hawkins was released by a hospital nine months ago to a Lower East Side shelter, where homeless people with handicaps live four to a room.

The yelling, the perfumes and air fresheners, the byzantine regulations: it all led to her feeling trapped and anxious. So she adopted a daily routine of leaving early in the morning and returning for the 10 p.m. curfew. She spends her days walking the cacophonous corridors of Manhattan, and has grown adept at finding its nodes of serenity.

She takes refuge in museums — especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art — libraries, art galleries and “anywhere I can go for free that will calm me down,” she said. She wears ear plugs, avoids rush hours and passes up crowded trains. In recent months, she has used public library computers to research Asperger’s and to browse listings for jobs and rented rooms.

After a systematic search of many New York Public Library branches, she found the Grand Central branch, on 46th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, to be the quietest. But three months ago, panic set in: She noticed a sign in the library soliciting artwork for display in the library.

Ms. Hawkins had always found escape in drawing comics. And she had talent. An eighth-grade teacher made one of her cartoons into T-shirts for the whole class. She got into Art and Design High School and then briefly attended Pratt Institute. As an adult, she did fewer drawings after she smuggled her portfolio into a comics convention and pushed it into the hands of the legendary Stan Lee. He never called.

But now there was this sign, and opportunity was calling. Several panic attacks later, she resolved to create a comic book about her condition, and to submit it to the library branch.

At night, she took to slipping out of her shelter bed and locking herself in the shower. Sitting on the shower floor, she taped her sketch-paper to the tile walls, put her headphones on, and worked for hours. She ignored the knocks on the door, and sometimes redrew the same picture 10 times — a repetitive behavior typical of Asperger’s.

“I was feeling trapped and the creativity helped bring me a lot of confidence,” Ms. Hawkins said. “It was a way for me to say I’m eligible for something.”

“This wasn’t just a comic — it was a journey,” she said. “It changed me as a person.”

She emerged last month with a 22-page comic book, “Asperger’s Syndrome: An Invisible Disability,” which caught the fancy of the branch manager, Jyna Scheeren. The comic went up on the walls, where it will be on display until Dec. 30.

“It represents what the library is about,” Ms. Scheeren said, “lifelong learning and bringing different people together. I’d love to see it as a book.”

The comedic story line acts as something of a primer on the condition, with three teenage characters with Asperger’s, including the autobiographical Andrea, a klutz who has problems multi-tasking and following the boss’s directions. She cannot hold a job and at one point throws a furious tantrum and punches holes in a door, and then loses her job and her apartment.

Many drawings and story elements are based on Ms. Hawkins’s life, including a scene from a nightmare of a job at a Brooklyn Heights cafe.

For research, she sketched and photographed people and places to use as models for the comic. She forced herself past her panic and approached strangers.

The juggler in Union Square taught her some skills and became the inspiration for the scene in which Andrea is seen juggling impossible tasks at work. The cute clarinetist in the fedora near Union Square became a main character, as did the teenagers in the St. Marks Place pizza shop. A man in an art store gave Ms. Hawkins a discount upon hearing about her project.

“I had to get past my fears of approaching people, but the New Yorkers I met were open and friendly and their energy helped me along,” she said on Wednesday as she walked along rainy, crowded Lexington Avenue. She stepped into a coffee shop but could not decide what to order. Back on the street, she winced as an ambulance screamed by. It was raining hard, but she had seven hours to kill before curfew.

“I guess I’ll go up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” she said, and disappeared into the crowd in the rain.