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ARTism, Helping build autism awareness ... one brick at a time

Red Wing sixth-grader Chase Garcia works on his latest Lego creation Thursday in preparation for ARTism, a Rochester art show featuring collaborations between artists and children with autism spectrum disorder opening May 24. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun)

When Chase Garcia plays with his Legos, it’s as if the world around him disappears.

“They’re just fun to build with,” the Red Wing sixth-grader said, his eyes focused on a pile of the multicolored bricks searching for just the right one.

Chase, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3, spends hours assembling Legos and saves all his allowance money to buy more, said his mother, Shelley Walls.

His intricate creations, which include a red building and a structure dubbed “Base 238,” will be featured in ARTism: a collaboration, an autism-themed art show premiering next weekend in Rochester.

The event will showcase pieces combining the work of autistic children with that of artists from around the country. In all, 11 families and more than 30 artists have signed up to participate, co-founder Karla Giguere said.

It was up to the children and artists to decide exactly what their collaborations would entail, but Giguere said some examples she’s seen so far have used music, video and photography.

Chase was teamed with area photographer Kent Hagan, who held a photo shoot earlier this month to capture some of Chase’s work and convey his passion for building.

Walls said she is eager to see Hagan’s finished piece, and will be bringing a large group of family to the ARTism opening to support her son.

“Ever since I found out I was pregnant, I wanted to be the football mom,” she said. “It’s not the cheerleading I had in mind 12 years ago, but I’m OK with that.”

A lot changed for Walls after Chase’s diagnosis, including going back to school for a degree in human services to learn as much as she could about autism spectrum disorder, a broad term for developmental disabilities affecting social, communication and behavioral development.

Like many with autism, Chase is very intelligent — his math skills are at a ninth-grade level and his reading is on par with the typical seventh-grader — but Walls said he has difficulty with social skills and keeping friends.

Legos are a way for Chase to relax after a stressful day, Walls said, and the bricks give him an outlet to express his thoughts in ways he might not be able to do otherwise.

“When I sit and watch him, it’s not just a kid playing,” said Jayna Fink, Chase’s skills worker. “He has this idea in his head of what he wants to build.”

Giguere said art can allow children with autism to “find a voice,” and collaborating with an artist is a way for them to communicate without words.

“I consider it to be a dialog between the children and the artists,” she said. “It’s like a conversation.”

The idea started around five years ago after Giguere’s autistic son, Vincent, made a series of complex drawings. One of her friends from high school, Californian artist Christiaan Kier, took the drawings and fused them with his photography.

Giguere worked with Kier to turn the concept into ARTism, which then was organized along with Nathaniel Burns, a friend from Phoenix. Area artist Bram Ellenbecker helped with local recruitment.

The ARTism show runs 5 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday May 24 at the Creative Salon, 324 First Ave. S.W., in Rochester. Admission is $3 per person.

Giguere said pieces will be put up for auction during the show, with the proceeds benefiting the Rochester-based RT Autism Awareness Foundation.

The display will remain open with no entry fee for a week starting May 25 during studio hours. More info can be found at

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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