May 24, 2019

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From 'fish out of water' to shark artist

Winnipegger's work takes unique view of the world

Smoluk working on Shark.</p>

Smoluk working on Shark.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/6/2016 (1070 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you’re meeting Ryan Smoluk for the first time, you’d better check your preconceived notions and fears of autism at the door.

Hollywood has depicted autistic people either as savants with few social skills, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, or as silent people, off in their own world.

Ryan Smoluk, a 38-year-old artist from Winnipeg, welcomes viewers to his world through the vivid collection of paintings, sculptures and mixed-media works that are part of Culture Shock, his first solo exhibition, which opened last week at the Actual Gallery in the Exchange District.

Art was a means of communicating when he was a youngster, he says. It allowed him to get his ideas on paper while his verbal skills caught up.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/6/2016 (1070 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you’re meeting Ryan Smoluk for the first time, you’d better check your preconceived notions and fears of autism at the door.

Hollywood has depicted autistic people either as savants with few social skills, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, or as silent people, off in their own world.

Ryan Smoluk, a 38-year-old artist from Winnipeg, welcomes viewers to his world through the vivid collection of paintings, sculptures and mixed-media works that are part of Culture Shock, his first solo exhibition, which opened last week at the Actual Gallery in the Exchange District.

Art was a means of communicating when he was a youngster, he says. It allowed him to get his ideas on paper while his verbal skills caught up. 

"I wanted to communicate, but I wasn’t (as) good at communicating as normal kids," Smoluk says. "Art allowed me to bridge that gap." 

When he’s not working on art, he speaks at autism conferences; his story has sometime provided inspiration to parents akin to that provided by renowned animal scientist and author Temple Grandin, who also has autism.

These days, he’s unafraid of chatting about his art and how he put the exhibition together. A new exhibition can be nerve-racking for the most experienced of artists, and Smoluk’s no exception, but he is proud to unveil these works, which open a door into his thoughts, dreams and nightmares — areas of an autistic person’s life society has difficulty reaching.

Golden Bubble by Ryan Smoluk.</p>

Golden Bubble by Ryan Smoluk.

"Through this, it’s allowed me to appreciate people better, to not take people for granted," Smoluk says.

Smoluk earned a fine arts degree from the University of Manitoba in 2013. He remembers being "a fish out of water" when first attending university classes, including a drawing class taught by Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft.

She says Smoluk exhibited skills similar to the rest of the students in class, but when he brought in his homework, the result of hours focusing solely on the art, she was blown away.

Working with Smoluk has also taught Thorneycroft about autism and how the neurological disorder affects different people in different ways.

"I think Ryan isn’t the norm, he’s the exception," Thorneycroft says.

Since then, she’s has been in Smoluk’s corner, acting as a mentor and becoming his friend. Thorneycroft and Smoluk share a dark sense of humour: it’s a trademark of her work — which includes Group of Seven Awkward Moments and The Doll Mouth Series  that has been presented in shows worldwide, and is certainly a part of Smoluk’s Culture Shock.

Sharks are a motif in several of his paintings and sculptures, including Jet Shark, a ceramic piece depicting a great white as a man-made machine composed of steel and rivets, and Shark, which features miniature items making up the innards of the aquatic beast.

But Smoluk also gets inspiration from surfing the Internet and from the news of the day. In his mixed-media work Have a Drink on Me, he has recycled discarded pills and capsules to go along with a painting of Bill Cosby that targets the recent rape accusations levelled against the comedian by multiple women.

Artist Ryan Smoluk (left) and his mentor, Diana Thorneycroft.</p>

Artist Ryan Smoluk (left) and his mentor, Diana Thorneycroft.

On top of its unsettling image, the old vitamins in the work have retained their odour, giving the piece a pungent smell that is noticeable in the sterile atmosphere of an art gallery.

In Flying Coffin, Smoluk has pieced together a model jet fighter, the CF-104 — a jet that had a number of fatal crashes during its time of service with the Canadian Armed Forces in the 1960s and ’70s — along with miniature toys and a small casket, depicting the lives lost and families destroyed by a plane dubbed the Widowmaker.

He said the piece was inspired by a conversation with Thorneycroft, who remembered her father used to fly the jet when he was stationed in West Germany during the Cold War. It remembers pilots who died in crashes but also their families, Smoluk says.

"(It symbolizes) how they’ve been affected by this vehicle and its history," he says.

The painting We Are Not Amused is Smoluk’s take on the Internet’s obsession with cat videos. While he spends his share of time surfing sites such as YouTube, he offers a word of warning to folks who spend too much time in front of their hand-held gadgets. 

"For normal people, they almost self-impose autism on themselves through their phones." 

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter:@AlanDSmall

 

Alan Small

Alan Small
Arts and Life Editor

Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.

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