Local artist’s paintings reflect her life with autism

Jessy Park brings her brush to the canvas, slowly, deliberately, precisely. She is adding a line of bricks to her painting of a Newport, R.I., mansion, and has chosen “periwinkle,” a light purple, as her color of choice for the particular row she is working on. With great care, she counts up rows from the bottom, and arriving at the right one, she applies the paint in the exact space she has penciled for this particular periwinkle brick. She frowns, examines her work, and then returns to her palette for more paint. On the canvas, her painting of the mansion’s upper windows and roof, and the bright aquamarine sky above, shines, rainbow-like, illuminated by a spectrum of colors Park has applied in a precise pattern.

How much is the commissioner of this painting going to pay Park for her labor of love?

“Twenty-five hundred!” Park exclaims.

Park is 44 years old and autistic. She lives at the Hoxsey St. home of her parents, Clara Claiborne Park, lecturer in English emeritus, and David Park, professor of physics emeritus, works in the Baxter Mailroom, and paints at her desk in her upstairs room. Like others who live with the brain disorder autism, she has huge difficulty with social interaction.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “many [people with autism] are incapable of understanding other people’s thoughts, feelings and needs. Often, language and intelligence fail to develop fully, making communication and social relationships difficult.” Park is no exception; while happy and loquacious, all conversation with her must deal with practical issues. Questions about feelings, according to her mother, will be met with incomprehension.

Park, however, is rare among those with autism in that her painting talent would place her in the ranks of what are popularly known as “autistic savants.” Her mother, however, despises the term, preferring instead the more technical language of “possessing splinter skills.” Whatever the terminology, Park is a strikingly talented artist. Her paintings, depictions of structures and natural phenomena, are precise down to the smallest detail, save for their abundance of bright, unexpected colors, arrayed in rainbow spectra that fit the precise patterns Park imagines.

By age six, although she could barely speak, Park showed an amazing aptitude for painting and colors. At 13, her mother enrolled her at Mt. Greylock High School, where Park spent the next nine years. Art was one of the only subjects in which Park was integrated with the regular students. According to her mother, Park “couldn’t understand most of the verbal directions, but followed others” to determine what she should be doing.

At 22, in 1980, Park left Mt. Greylock, taking a job in the Baxter Mailroom, where she still works today. She is an efficient and rapid worker there, according to her mother, and has an innate skill for numbers which helps her in her duties there.

“I like to do packages, and writing down numbers and putting slips in the boxes,” Park said.

The flip side of the coin, however, is that she is acutely sensitive to anything done incorrectly or out of order. A CD skipping while she works, for instance, is a painful and frustrating distraction. This had happened on several occasions before, she said, making it very hard for her to work.

As much as she generally enjoys her work in the mailroom, it is her painting which is drawing attention. In 1973, Park accompanied her mother to a conference at San Jose State University for those with autism and their families. Bored with the conference, Park went outside and, to occupy herself, sketched the drab conference building in pencil. One parent in attendance was so impressed that he bought the drawing for five dollars. Park had sold her first artwork.

With a great deal of encouragement and positive reinforcement, Park began to paint works which came to attract a great deal of attention, and eventually, lucrative commissions generally in the low thousands of dollars. At first, the money meant little to her save as a reflection of her own desire for order.

“She likes to see figures rise,” Claiborne Park said.

According to her mother, Park began to really enjoy painting only within the last five years. Before, “painting was no big deal; she did it because she did it.” Now, however, Park takes greater pleasure in her painting, a combination of the praise she receives and the additional complexity of her recent paintings.

“It’s like solving a complicated math problem,” Claiborne Park said, citing her daughter’s love for numbers.

In their intricacy and precision, Park’s paintings mirror complex mathematical equations. Every detail she sees upon direct observation, or in the photos of buildings sent by those who commission her to paint them, is painstakingly penciled onto her canvas. In one painting, every girder of a section of the George Washington Bridge is lovingly recreated, though in pastel pink. Every brick is sketched and painted in the structures that she draws – with her father’s help, Park has even memorized the name and appearance of every type of bricklaying technique used in construction.

In her latest work in progress, the Newport mansion, not even a small cardinal perched on the roof in just one of the many photos sent to her escaped her attention, and it appears on the canvas, a bright cherry red in contrast to the predominating pastel shades.

It isn’t hard to see why Park’s paintings are attracting so much attention. There were few lights on in Park’s house when this reporter visited on the coldest and darkest day of the semester so far. It didn’t matter, though; the paintings on the walls, with their beautiful radiating spectra, spread light better than any mere lamp could.

For more information on Jessy Park, check out either of Claiborne Park’s books about her daughter’s life with autism, The Siege and Exiting Nirvana.