'Artistic Autistic: Bayfield County Artist Stuns with the Brush'
March 2007 - The Lake Superior Sounder
I've always liked to believe that our consciousness is made up of colors, each individual thought a different hue conspiring with the others to form the make-up of our sensibilities, our view of the world, our 'vision.' Whether it's through a romantic encounter with someone or a simple glad friendship, it's when these colors are shared in their endless combinations with other people that they're at their most beautiful, the moment of our lofty thoughts revealed that we come to realize how much we have in common; we're not so different after all, and that discovered connection is at the very foundation of the creative process.
Never in my experience has this relatively simply concept of our essence represented by colors - lauded in countless popular songs by everyone from Bob Dylan to Cyndi Lauper - been more evident than in the work of Olaf (Ole) Sorenson, a 24-year-old painter from Bayfield County.
Working primarily in oils and acrylics, Sorenson's body of work is, in my opinion, indescribably beautiful. His colors are vibrant and complementary, his brush strokes full of motion that remains on the canvas (and thus, in the viewer's mind). His subject matter centers on the outdoors, ranging from sailboats to butterflies to pine trees. At first glance, his paintings possess an abstract look, bordering on haphazard. But stare more directly, dig a bit deeper INTO the picture, and you pick up a burst of subtleties, from bright shafts of sunlight cascading down a sea borne craft, to the wind-driven symmetry of geese in flight, to the kinetic presence of a bar of sunlight at the horizon, in a sky where an otherwise drab pall of cloud cover demands rumination.
Ole Sorenson has these colors, and others, in his mind.
It's all quite impressive, but as I've had the pleasure of finding out in recent years, there are lots of talented artists in northern Wisconsin, doing amazing things. Ole's story is a little different. Sitting down to talk with him, to pick his brain and have him describe his work, answer the questions that run rapidly through my mind as I view his work, is not an easy task.
Ole has autism.
Autism is classified by the World Health Organization as a developmental disability that results from a disorder of the central nervous system. The disease has been recognized since the 1940s, but its causes and treatments remain mysterious. Its symptoms generally manifest in severe language and communication difficulties. Because of this, people who live with autism can have difficulty understanding directions, processing the subtle vocal and facial cues of parents and teachers. This inability to fully decipher the world around them often makes education, and life on the whole, stressful.
But if Ole's paintings are any indication, he's deciphering the world around him just fine, with no problem whatsoever communicating. He does his communication on canvas, and it is evident he sees the world as an astonishingly beautiful place.
Ole cannot easily express himself verbally, but he's quite aware of his surroundings; you can tell simply by the way he gazes at you. Focus is a problem for any autistic person - either too much, or, as is the case on the afternoon I meet with Ole - not enough. He is more concerned with the dog barking in the next room than anything I have to say (can't blame him...), more interested in getting another piece of cake than the questions being asked. But this fact just makes his incredible talent, both the mind that inspires it and the malady that impedes it, more mysterious.
It is disappointing though. There are things I'd like to ask him and receive an answer for.
Ole has lived in Bayfield County his entire life. He started taking art therapy courses with artist Sara Balbin of Drummond in 1996, at the age of 12. The therapy was intended to help Ole relax, focus, and create something with his hands, which can be therapeutic for anyone.
However, Ole's mother, Barb, says there was something artistic about her son even earlier than that.
"He used to doodle in long, legal pads," she says. "They were profiles of people, just line drawings in pen or pencil, but they were very detailed, with the hair and nose and mouth. That was when he was five or younger. Someone looked at those and suggested art therapy for him, and he responded to it. From there it grew."
Since that time, Ole has completed numerous works that, with the help of Balbin, his mother and caregiver Dawn Bard, he sells on attractive greeting cards. In 2000, he hosted a well-received exhibit at the Black Cat Coffeehouse in Ashland. In autumn 2005, he participated in the Art Festival in Madison.
I ask Bard if Ole receives any assistance when he paints.
"No," she says, "the only thing his art therapist does is help him focus and compile what he's going to paint. But the brush strokes are all his, and he chooses his own colors, which is his favorite part of the process."
No surprise there. Color is, hands down, the most striking component of his work.
"Does he work from photographs or other pictures while he paints?" I ask mother Barb.
She replies, "No, he decides what he's going to paint, and does it. All of these images are things he's seen sometime in his life."
Put in those terms - the slide show of static images, memories, that accumulate in our minds as time passes - really makes Ole's work intriguing. And when one considers the faculties that are otherwise lacking, it makes his artistic vision that much more inspiring. There are people among us, many, who do a lot less with a lot more.
That isn't to say Ole doesn't have other interests. In fact, he's a fairly well-rounded guy, enjoying jazz and rock and roll music, bike riding, bird watching and pizza parties (something else most of us share).
But it's his veritable song on canvas that distinguishes Ole Sorenson. The process by which he arrives at and manages to render these works might remain a mystery to science, but the end result is no mystery. His unique flashes of color and motion do not require an explanation from science or the medical community...or the artistic community, for that matter.
They simply are. And that is what all art - in creation, completion and for posterity - should be about.