Utah Valley University begins fall semester 04

Utah Valley University students walk to campus after being dropped off by the UVX bus on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Photo by Johnny Morris, special to the Daily Herald)

Utah Valley University’s Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism is hosting an online gallery that will showcase the work of artists from all age ranges on the autism spectrum through May 1, 2021.

The hope is that the exhibit will promote autism awareness while creating a place for the community to celebrate the artists’ work. This year, about 50 artists are being showcased and approximately 150 pieces of art was submitted.

Normally done on campus, the gallery was made virtual due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

With the move to a virtual gallery, there have been some added challenges but Laurie Bowen, associate director at the university’s center for autism, said the online pieces have added accessibility to the showcase.

“I absolutely do think that this has been a surprise blessing out of all of this,” Bowen said of the accessibility of the online gallery.

She said, usually, about 100 to 150 people attend the show in person, but that number has increased this year. The webpage featuring the art has seen about 400 people so far.

“People love the show,” Bowen added. “We have several dedicated families that come every time we do the show and submit their art. In a lot of ways, the opportunity to be a part of the art show is a way to celebrate their strengths and talents. We have families that bring their grandparents, their teachers, anyone who’s like a therapist working with them, and so that’s one of the great things about the art show. We have a pretty devoted following of folks that come because they love being there.”

With the ability to showcase all of the work online, Bowen added the center has been able to zone in on certain families and artists this year, with one artist, Benji, submitting 24 pieces of his art.

His work highlights him and his family’s story and how they feel as if art is a way for Benji to express himself in a way that they can communicate together.

“We have a lot of artists that are very excited and proud of the work they have done and are happy to have a place where they can show that off,” Bowen said. “We have had several artists that shared their perspectives as to why they chose to share with us the pieces they did or what they created and why. That is all shared on the website, as well, so you might see an artists work, and right next to it, they may have also contributed some writing about why that was important to them.”

This online gallery acts as a way for artists to show off their talents and many of the contributors love that opportunity. The hope, now, is that other people on the autism spectrum will be inspired by the artwork and strive to develop and showcase their own works.

“We want it to be acceptable, where they feel like what they have to offer has a place, that there is a place to contribute,” Bowen said. “We hope it stretches some people to do something that maybe they wouldn’t have done before. It can kind of celebrate some of those talents and art reaches everybody. Art is a universal language and for some people who maybe have struggles communicating in other ways; art is one of those areas where maybe they can shine brightly and we want to provide that opportunity.”

UVU is very unique in what its autism center offers, and one of those components is the extensive support from the community, Bowen said.

Along with the support in the community, the university also recently received a $1.9 million grant to offer educational programs for those with intellectual disabilities.

“We’re striving all the time to create and to recognize that everyone belongs,” Bowen said. “The center does that in a lot of different capacities, but one of them is looking for those ways we can celebrate uniqueness and where we can educate and bring awareness by showing those foundational levels where we’re all the same. Where we have similarities rather than differences.”

Opportunities like this art show will only begin to expand as the center continues to grow. Bowen said the goal is to make sure the playing field is equal for everyone, regardless of diagnosis.

“There are so many ways that we can offer and create a more cohesive and belonging community through intentional, simple actions,” Bowen said.