When Gregory Blackstock wants to express his happiness, he pretends to be an airplane. Holding one hand centered over his nose for the propeller, the other arm angled back as a wing, he begins to rotate his finger faster and faster, complete with appropriate sound effects for the exact plane he is becoming. When ready, he gives a little happy skip and then ‘takes off’ down the sidewalk, grinning as he looks back to mark his progress. Because he is a grizzled seventy year old man, he can elicit quite a few stares. Blackstock, autistic, is oblivious.
He was only ten years old when he was sent to an institutional school specializing in children with varied emotional and developmental difficulties where he would spend 5 unhappy years. Blackstock grew up in an era where the term autism was scarcely known, and his newly single mother had no idea how to handle the special needs of her son. When he speaks of that time, it is clear that there were two things in his new life which gave him joy. The school was not far from a busy train yard, and he spent happy hours memorizing the trains and their sounds. A beloved aunt and uncle lived an hour away, and whenever possible, they would take him to the airport to watch the planes land and take off. In short order, Blackstock knew each type of plane, the make of the engine, and could perfectly mimic its thunderous roar.
Although autism is now more widely understood, Blackstock’s life has not been easy. To the outside world, here was a child, then youth, then man who apparently cared little for personal grooming, was loud, dominated conversations, and rudely disregarded the needs and feelings of others, all the while magnifying the paramount importance of his own wishes and desires. True friendships and meaningful work were always just out of his reach.
For most of us, our behavior is fine-tuned over the years by the perceived reactions of others, but also by our ability to empathize with, incorporate and act on, the feelings of those around us. Instead, Blackstock is guided by what gives him immediate pleasure, and he must learn by rote those behaviors society expect from him.
A curious way Blackstock attempts to understand the mysteries of conversation is to study and reflect on the words themselves. Trying to crack the communication ‘code,’ he has regularly made large lists of words followed by definitions found in his battered thesaurus, augmented with his own guesses at what additional meanings might exist for that word. Because he lacks discernment, all words in the grouping have equal weight and value.
He generally focuses on words and phrases which convey strong emotion.
In one of his Thesaurus drawings, one finds this word:
Chide, reprove, reprimand, admonish, reproach, revile, censure, find fault with, jaw, upbraid, jump after anyone for a talking-to, chew one’s ass out (vulgar slang), give what-for, give someone deserts…
Social and communication deficits aside, the issue that informs nearly every part of his daily life, is the absence of what is called “executive function.” Blackstock has almost no ability to make decisions, choices, judgements based on logic. He cannot generalize from one situation to the next to predict outcomes; he cannot visualize consequences of his actions or the actions of others. He has limited ability to imagine “what ifs.” If the bus is scheduled to arrive at his stop at 1:13, then he gets there at 1:13, and is flabbergasted if he finds the bus pulling away. Predictable routine, static technology, and most of all, facts, are very comforting to Blackstock.
For all of his apparent limitations, what actually goes on in his brain is nothing short of astonishing. Called a “prodigious savant” by a leading researcher, Blackstock plays the accordion, piano, and organ. For relaxation, he draws musical staffs freehand, and then effortlessly writes in the notes – in a new key – of entire songs he heard decades earlier. He can adequately communicate, with perfect accent and grammar, in nearly a dozen languages. He can mimic the sound of a variety of airplane engines, and recite stretches of favorite films verbatim. Referencing images culled from books, photos, and his own memory, Blackstock learns detailed information for whatever interests him, memorizing an astonishing range of geographical, anecdotal, and scientific information which he will never forget.
When he was twenty-eight, Blackstock became fascinated with the tools in the maintenance room where he worked as a janitor. With no formal art training, he began converting what he saw into his first list-like drawing, named simply, “The Tools.” He proudly showed it to his mother, an artist, when she returned home from a long vacation. She praised him and then stated it was “too big.” It would be another twenty-four years before he again attempted to catalog his world. And then he couldn’t stop. The range of things that capture his attention are endless – animal, vegetable, mineral, music, language, film, sounds. It is interesting to note that not only is this artist self-taught, but because each new drawing involves a different subject, Blackstock is simultaneously teaching himself how to draw that plane, bird, plant or insect as he is rendering it on the final piece. He makes no drafts and the work he begins is invariably the work he completes, though he often has many drawings in progress at once.
Although the artist has always created his drawings for personal enjoyment and education, this socially challenged man clearly uses this medium as an important communication tool with which to draw others into his world. He loves talking about his drawings to whomever will listen, and often adds sound effects (race boat engines), mimes irritations (mosquitos) or recounts bits of his own history, which are imbedded in or associated with many of his drawings (Petosa accordions.) Interestingly, the factual detail of the subjects and their conversational utility are much more important to Blackstock than the physical medium of his drawings, which he treats with cavalier disregard and are often damaged.
When in 2004 his art first came to the attention of Garde Rail Gallery and began to sell, Blackstock was thrilled that his drawings were finding homes throughout the world. The first question he asks is never about money, it is always about geography and he keeps a list of all the drawings sold and where they now reside. Purchase price, buyer’s name, all completely irrelevant. Whatever the subject of the last purchased piece, the artist always exclaims, “Oh boy, the public sure is in love with my (vegetable) drawings” and he begins dreaming of others in a series. In true Blackstock fashion, he then stops, thinks, and says, “How about rhinoceros instead?”