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Andrew cannot talk.
But he heard the praise for his work — people oohing and aahing over the giant sculpture he debuted at the St. Louis Art Fair — and it washed over him. Andrew is an artist at RHD’s Blank Canvas Studios, and at the art fair he stood with his family as crowds of onlookers gawked at the 10-foot-tall giraffe sculpture in the center of the gallery, saying a dozen variations of, essentially: “Hey, that’s great.”

“You know, there are different ways to express yourself,” said James Huffman, director of Blank Canvas Studios. “Without him saying a word, you could see it in his smile — the sensation being there and having people validate his work, and himself as an artist, was written all over his face.”

Blank Canvas Studios is a creative arts program for individuals with developmental disabilities, providing its artists the opportunity to create and be celebrated for their very special style of outsider art. Blank Canvas, like all RHD programs for artists with disabilities, supports creativity and self-expression through visual arts, music, and community involvement, and provides individuals with the tools and materials to create art and the supports to define themselves as artists.

Andrew presented what Huffman and Blank Canvas suspected might be an interesting challenge. Andrew has an extremely rare form of autism, and he’s almost entirely nonverbal. He’d aged out of the program he attended, and his parents were searching for an adult program for him. They found Blank Canvas through word of mouth; as advocates whose opinion they sought kept steering them to the program. They decided to take a tour and were immediately encouraged.

“When we found Blank Canvas, Andrew got kind of excited about all the different ways that he could express himself,” said Andrew’s mother, Sheila Wattler. “He had always done art — Andrew won awards for his artwork in school — and he always had a place in his heart that he liked to express himself that way. We wanted something for him that he would enjoy, and we wanted something where he’d be around other people, be social and be involved in the community.

“What I liked right away was that everybody was engaged. Nobody was just sitting; everyone was engaged in something. And we were so impressed with the artists. The staff there works so hard at bringing out people’s creativity. Everybody has a special something inside them, and bringing it out takes special people. We’ve found that at RHD and Blank Canvas.”

Andrew soon blossomed, both in the studio and out.

“It was apparent right away that this wasn’t going to be the challenge we thought it was,” Huffman said. “He picked up things quickly, he rolled with the classes, he threw himself into it. He flourished almost immediately and started creating this great stuff. Andrew is non-verbal, but he communicates quite a bit through his art. 

“When he first started coming here, Andrew separated himself from the crowd and we didn’t see a lot of emotion from him. But very soon, he got much more in the groove, so to speak. He’s made relationships, he’s much more involved, he’s comfortable with the people here, he’s a lot more social.

“One of the cool things about Blank Canvas is that we give people the ability to roam, look at things and decide for themselves what they want to do. We’ve got a great staff that is willing to say: How about this? No? OK, How about this? Our staff works very hard to give people the opportunity to explore — and find — different things. It’s the epitome of individualized service. We don’t want people to try to fit in; we want to fit to them. We believe that’s the way to draw abilities out of people that maybe they didn’t know they had.”

Check out photos of Andrew's sculpture being installed at RHD's Central Office

Andrew took to sculpture, and plainly wanted to work ... well, big. His art teacher at Blank Canvas, Elizabeth Cannon, would go through images in magazines or online, and when Andrew saw a picture of a giraffe he got very interested. (“Liz has a knack for connecting with people who may have challenges in communicating, and guiding them through the process,” Huffman said). Cannon said it was obvious this was going to be his next project. And when he started working, it was clear he was aiming for something lifesize.

Giraffes are the tallest land animals on earth, reaching heights of 20 feet. It would be a massive undertaking in that art projects at Blank Canvas are, like all RHD’s creative arts programs, “99 percent artist and one percent staff,” as Huffman put it. Staff provides guidance and direction, but the artists can either make the art or they can’t — and a sculpture this size was plainly going to be a significant challenge for Andrew.

He had to build it in pieces; the legs separate from the body, the body separate from the neck, and so on — but also be able to work in a way that would make everything fit together. As he worked on the composite parts, he had to maintain the concept of the whole. Cannon was committed to supporting Andrew in this project, and sold Huffman on the idea — she could assist with the wire work for the skeleton so that the piece could stand on its own, and she was confident Andrew could pull it off in papier-mache. Huffman gave the OK, saying with a chuckle: “Well ... we don’t do anything small-scale here.”

It took weeks. Andrew worked tirelessly, and the staff helped keep the project under wraps until its completion. In June they unveiled it for Huffman, who took one look and said: “Wow. That’s big.”

It was. And it was a big hit at the St. Louis Outsider Art Fair, where RHD studios in Missouri worked with local partners to help create the largest outsider art show in the Midwest.

The sculpture now graces the main entrance of RHD’s central office in Philadelphia.

“We were proud of what he did; we always are,” Sheila Wattler said. “But to be there and hear the way people supported him, to hear people stop him and say how great his work was ... well, it was just wonderful. Phenomenal. We were ecstatic.

“He’s developing himself, and he’s more self-assured. His teachers there are so great with him. He got comfortable there right away. They take a positive attitude with him, nurturing him and his art. He feels like he’s accomplishing something important, that he’s making something and showing it to the world.”