Nat Jones has been drawing and painting for eight years, which is not surprising for a 13-year-old boy.
What might surprise some, however, is that Nat is autistic, and his purposeful artistic creations have garnered enough attention to earn an exhibit at a cafe in his town, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Nat’s paintings, a mix of water colors, pastels, crayons, markers, colored pencils and even some spit, are on display at Suburban Trading Co. in Kensington, Maryland. His bright art goes a long way to show that even if a person is non-verbal—which Nat is—he still has something to express.
Nat’s father Tom says that he thinks his son finds the act of creating his art relaxing and self-stimulating, without the exhaustion of classic stimming, which is repetitive behavior common in individuals with autism.
“He likes to hum a lot when drawing and gets very close to the lines he is making,” Tom says. “Then he pulls back and adjusts the paper as he sees fit. Many times he will lick his fingers and smudge the lines.”
“I think the process is what he enjoys most. He gets a lot of sensory input from it—visual as he selects colors and watches them change as he layers them, visual as he watches his fingers and the brush move to make the strokes, and tactile input from the feel of the brush smooshing paint on the canvas to the feel of a crayon flicking strokes across a piece of paper,” she says.
Sixteen of Nat’s creations are on display at Suburban Trading Co., a family-run cafe offering pastries and prepared foods as well as a hot supper each evening. Co-owner Alison Cavallaro was struck by the detail and intricacy of Nat’s drawings.
“This kid is an artist,” she says. “His work stands on its own and is as worthy to hang on our wall as any other.”
An artist herself, Cavallaro remembers visiting Nat’s home, where his drawing table in the living room was piled with a stack of drawings next to a box of pastels and around the corner from an easel and a window covered in paint.
“This kid had complete freedom to express himself artistically with no boundaries or constraints,” she says.
For his part, Tom says of his son, “He is a boy full of fun and a bit impish. He loves to laugh. He is a fun person to be around.”
Nat was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and loves to swim, hike and play hockey. When he creates his art, “Most times his face, hands and shirt will be covered in [non-toxic] paints, pastels and markers—a funny sight for sure,” says Tom. “He will put down a drawing and come back to it hours or days later to continue.”
Parents of children with autism, especially those such as Nat who communicate primarily through signing, gestures, prompted verbalization and PECS (picture cards used to help non-verbal individuals express themselves), often seek alternate ways to allow their children to express themselves.
“I think his work is clearly expressive,” Liz comments, adding that “his enjoyment of the patterns and layers he makes with color and line is evident.”
“He has an amazingly cohesive color pallete,” she says. “Many of his drawings are complete compositions that evoke clear evidence of his emotions. There is intensity in his use of saturated color and strong application of line stroke, and then incredible sensitivity in lines that are as delicate as feathers and color combinations that are completely complimentary and cause immediate response from the viewer.”
According to his parents, Nat takes joy in displaying his art as well. Both parents hang Nat’s art in their homes.
Liz says that when she wanted to hang one of his recent creations in her kitchen, Nat very insistently indicated that he wanted it hung in her living room next to a Kandinsky reproduction.
“So there it hangs,” she says.
When some friends from Nat’s hockey team went to see his exhibit recently, Liz says,
“He was very pleased with himself and chuckled the entire time. I think Nat was starting to understand that what he does is interesting to people beyond himself and his parents.”
“Because of his autism, Nat’s world does not include the language of words,” says Cavallaro, “but he has stories to tell, and he tells them beautifully through his art.”
Suburban Trading Co. is located at 10301 Kensington Parkway in Kensington, Maryland. Nat’s art will be on display through June.