Autistic artists exhibit work at Carrboro Branch Library

The moment you step into the Carrboro Branch Library, you will notice something different. In addition to books on the shelves, there are works of art on the walls. One of the paintings may stand out to you: A young lady with her hoodie on, looking down, contemplating in the woods.

Nerys Levy has been running the library’s arts program for 18 years. She says that to put on an exhibition of works by people with unique talents, it has to be done properly and respectfully so as to show the strength of uniqueness. “It has to be the best you can do; otherwise, don’t do it,” she says. In the background is Susan Kermon’s “In The Woods I.” (Staff photo by Sophie Wu)

The painting by Susan Kermon, an advocacy artist based in Greensboro, is one of the works showcased at Diversability, an exhibition that celebrates people with unique talents and urges inclusion of marginalized people.

With April being Autism Awareness Month, the show features artists on the autism spectrum and photography by self-advocates — individuals with disabilities who attempt to speak up for themselves and take control of their own lives.

A chance to display their talents

Nerys Levy, artist, organizer of the exhibit and chairwoman of the Carrboro Branch Library’s Art Committee, said Diversability recognizes the talent autism spectrum disorders can generate.

“In a way, it’s seen by some people as problems, but this art show sees it as an enviable talent,” she said.

Levy explained that what Kermon has is high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. She was not diagnosed until she was 45, even though she had known there was something different about herself. According to Levy, Kermon did not paint or acknowledge she was an artist for a long time because she associated her talent with something abnormal. After finally being able to accept who she is, Kermon’s artistic power unleashed, as shown in her first exhibition, which is currently displayed in both the Carrboro library and Chapel Hill’s FRANK Gallery.

“For her this is a big statement, and she handled it very well,” Levy said.

On another wall in the library are 18 photographs featuring self-advocates with InFocus, an organization working to empower individuals with varying abilities to advocate for themselves and create more inclusive communities.

Ginger Walton, InFocus’s co-founder and executive director, said their advocacy-photography program allows participants to tell stories through their own lens. “The photography is a tool — an advocacy and education tool,” she said. “The group dialogue gives group ownership to the photographs, and the photographs stir conversation.”

Photos that tell a story

How does the advocacy-photography program work? Walton said InFocus meets with participants and gives them a general question, such as, “What do you want the community to know about you?”

Then the participants would work on their own photos. Some people choose to take pictures of things or people important to them, while some like to be the subjects of the photos, and have them made by friends or family members. The whole group came back together after they submitted their works and had a conversation about their photographs.

“The photographs have to be the participants’ ideas,” Walton emphasized.

All of the photos on display in the Carrboro library come with a statement by the creator. For example: “You should treat us the way we are. We are adults. We are not kids.” The photo associated with it shows a young man with a basketball game on a TV behind him while he is having pizza and beer. Walton recalled the man telling his story in the group discussion: “I’m 32 years old, and I know how to be responsible. On Saturday night, I sent my parents out on a date, and I have my pizza and beer because I’m an adult.”

There is a close-up picture of a mailbox, under the theme of “membership and belonging.” The quote goes, “I checked the mail every day.” According to Walton, the young man who took the photo and his family had recently relocated, so he lost a lot of his connections. When they moved into the new home, he was adamant about which bedroom was going to be his, and his parents had no idea why. He said he wanted the room that gave him the best view of the mailbox because that is where he received any information about events or things he might be invited to.

“He was telling us that he wants to be included,” Walton said.

Walton said many people are more comfortable lumping those with disabilities together and act patronizing. “It requires that you get out of that thinking mode and open yourself up to friendships and realization of the similarities,” she said.

Levy said, “People need to understand that people on the spectrum have a place in society.” She views it as the public library’s duty to educate people by organizing exhibitions like this.

“The art on the wall reflects our inclusivity and our support of diversability,” she said. “We’re a community gallery. There’s no discrimination.”

Erin Sapienza, manager of the library, said that the arts on the wall are very striking, poignant and vivid. “The fact that there are such personal stories behind most of these works are what make them so interesting and special for the library to have,” she said.

The exhibition, which runs through June 14, will hold a reception to meet the artists on April 19, 2-4:30 p.m. at the Carrboro Branch Library.

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Ginger Walton, seen here with photographs by the InFocus advocates in the FRANK Gallery, has been working for years with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her message to the public is: “We are more alike than different. We all want to belong. It is mutually beneficial to get to know people who have varying abilities.” (Staff photo by Sophie Wu)

Author of the article

Sophie is a UNC-CH first-year master's degree graduate student from Taipei, Taiwan. She is serving as a writer-photographer for the Carrboro Commons.