Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A picture is a thousand words

Autistic artist 'compelled' to fill up space -- and her message is reaching all the way to Amsterdam

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Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press

Melanie Halprin, 21, is autistic and is non-verbal. An artist in the Netherlands saw a card she designed and as a result, two pieces of her art were displayed in art show in Amsterdam where thousands of people saw it.

Winnipeg's Melanie Halprin might not talk in full sentences, but when it comes to art, her work speaks volumes.

Halprin, who was diagnosed with autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder when she was a child, has accomplished what many painters have never accomplished: she has had her work displayed in a recent art show at the renowned Rijksakademie Art Institute in Amsterdam, also known as the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

"My husband Phil says he can't stop giggling that she has gone all the way from Mom and Dad's refrigerator door to one of the art shows in one of the leading art cities in the world," Halprin's mother, Brenda, said.

"We're over the moon... she can't converse, but she can call out response words. We think this is a wonderful story. We are so proud of Melanie."

Brenda said when her now 21-year-old daughter was young she would call out individual words and the parents would write them down on a sheet of paper until they filled it up.

"One day, when she was about 10, she was waiting for Phil and I to come to the table, but by the time we got there an eight by 11 piece of paper was filled with words. I asked if Dad helped do this but he said no. That's when we realized she had done it.

"After that, we could say it's time to do words and she'd do it."

Halprin has had many people help her through the years, so as a way to thank them the family took Melanie's artwork, scanned them onto a computer, and produced cards with the artwork on the front to write thank-you notes inside.

One of the cards ended up going to a friend of the family's in the Netherlands and when it was on display in a residence it was observed by Dutch artist, Justin Gosker, who is studying at the academy.

The academy's website states a stay by a resident artists there "often leads to an international breakthrough."

Gosker says he was so moved by the artwork he insisted on having two of them sent to the Netherlands to be part of the academy's annual art show.

"They move me the way one can wonder about the endless formations of clouds, the way someone is lost in thought for no apparent reason, the way things grow the way things go," he wrote in an email.

"Things are going all the time. Melanie's drawings give me joy in realizing this."

Gosker said about 7,000 people came to the exhibit and saw Halprin's artwork, with many of them giving positive comments and asking questions about her work and about her.

"One man told me he studied the word drawing for some time and became completely fascinated by the endless amount of narratives that flowed in his mind if he would just add a 'the' or 'and' to the words Melanie had drawn. Everything could be connected in a playful and joyful manner."

Halprin has two different styles, one where she fills up her canvas using words written with different colours and sizes, the other where she draws simple flowers. Both styles were shown in the exhibit.

Don't try to stop her once she starts doing her art.

"Melanie has a commitment to fill up space and she doesn't want to leave until she has done it," Brenda said.

"Justin says he likes how she fills up space, but we told him Melanie is compelled to fill up the space."

Brenda said they don't know if any of their daughter's art will be exhibited again in such a prestigious venue, but it already was an unexpected accomplishment.

"Not many people, autistic or not, jump from Winnipeg to Amsterdam, one of the leading cities in the world for art, without stopping in between," she said. "We've always lived with hope and that's the message with this.

"Look what can happen."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 20, 2014 B1


Updated on Monday, January 20, 2014 at 11:54 AM CST: Slideshow added.

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