Nancy Belanger had no idea that her son Shawn had a talent for art when he first began to draw. Shawn was diagnosed with a developmental disability when he was 2 ½; it was three years later before he received the diagnosis of autism. As a six-year-old, Shawn’s artwork was unremarkable – and though his continued attempts produced hundreds upon hundreds of drawings, there was no real indication that Shawn had unusual talent. Still, Nancy knew how much he loved to draw, and she was committed to encouraging him in every way possible — though she had no way of knowing what that would mean. To read Nancy’s account of her son’s development as an artist and to see samples of Shawn’s earliest drawings, read below.
“The one thing I am quite sure of is that Shawn has shown us how he sees the world. The detail that he puts in his work leads us to believe that he does not see the big picture; he sees each and every detail.”
-Nancy Belanger, Shawn’s mom
Shawn’s art has been featured in the book Drawing Autism by Jill Mullin. His work titled “Walking Sticks” is on the cover of Adult Life with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Self Help Guide, published by Autism Calgary Association. He also has entered works in Balancing Acts, a yearly disability arts festival in Calgary, for the past four years. Last year, he was awarded a “best in show” at the festival for the first time, for his picture “Home Street Home.” He has created logos for a few autism groups in Calgary and has donated pictures to charity events. Shawn also sells prints of his work, both on on paper and on canvas. Anyone interested can contact the family through Shawn’s website. Shawn will also be happy to create original artwork from photographs.
A Mind for Detail
Artist Shawn Belanger
Following are excerpts from Nancy Belanger’s description of her son’s journey from childhood into the adult world, in which he has become a respected artist, creating commissioned works and exhibiting his drawings in galleries.
By the time he was 7 or 8, Shawn would find a picture book and put it beside him on the table to look at as he drew. At first, he did not like the images he created; he decided that he and I should draw hand-over-hand, with me controlling the pencil.
He even tried drawing from a video… he would put it on a certain part and pause, and I was expected to quickly draw with his hand that particular image. As you can imagine, it was a difficult endeavor.
He often did not like what I was drawing with his hand, so when we would finish a picture he would erase parts of it and redo it … eventually he began to draw on his own.
Shawn loved Disney Encyclopedias… he became very good at drawing every detail. Eventually he designed his own characters made up of parts of the characters in the book. He named them letters of the alphabet. Each character was a slight variation of the other.
Right up until high school, Shawn did not like people looking at his work. He would show me, saying “Good job Shawn,” and then want me to repeat what he was saying. Sometimes he added in “well done” and then he would turn them over and lay them on the counter. He did not want others to look at them. It was only after art class in high school that he seemed to feel a sense of pride in his work.
We tried unsuccessfully to have Shawn integrated into art classes in junior high but the teacher refused to allow it, so it wasn’t until senior high that Shawn attended an art class. His art teacher showed him books of famous artists and Shawn began to draw with pencil and colour with pencil crayons. He did the Mona Lisa, the Pieta, a nude, Van Gogh’s Bedroom and several other pictures. They were amazing. He spent a second year in art in high school and continued to develop his own style.
When he left high school we found an adult program for people with disabilities that had an artist on staff. His mentor artist introduced him to the sharpie pen for drawing as Shawn would smudge his pencil drawings when he was working on them. At the same time he moved him from pencil crayons to artist ink markers. Shawn started looking through National Geographic magazines to find his inspiration. He continues to work in a similar way.
A year after beginning his adult program Shawn’s art was displayed in an art show, along with a few others. We were not too sure how he would handle it, but he surprised us. Shawn has very little conversational speech and usually does not like to draw attention to himself. At the art show, it was very obvious that he was listening to people’s comments. After the first half hour, Shawn brought over a chair and sat right under his favourite picture.