by Mahroo Keshavarz
Being on Facebook serves many purposes for many social media reasons and one of those reasons is how magnificently art work circulates through the web. Through clicking the “share” button on an image you can influence another viewer who sees it in their own feed.
This is how I came across Michael Tolleson’s art work. Suddenly, on a very average Facebook day, my feed was flooded with amazing paintings of colorful horses on canvas. I have a slight biased towards anything that has to do with a horse but the color and the actions of horses actually moved me. I began looking at the rest of his art work, Googling his name, and finding his fan page on Facebook.
After some of my own research, I learned a few things about Michael Tolleson before I had met him. For one thing, he is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is on the Autism spectrum. From my own experience working for years in Special Education with those diagnosed with Autism and specifically Asperger’s, I was very curious to dive deeper in the world of Michael Tolleson and see what his world was like and how he viewed it.
Fun fact: each one of his paintings, regardless of size, takes less than an hour to paint
When I entered his Pioneer Square gallery Heart; The Gallery, I was greeted by Michael Tolleson and his partner Jack Carl Anderson, who is also diagnosed with Asperger’s. Both of these men proclaim that together, they are willing to do anything and everything it takes to spread the message of hope to others on the Autism Spectrum, especially reaching out to children with Autism, through their art work. Heart; The Gallery currently has artwork from 40 artists, with 20 of them challenged, and 10 of them on the Autistic spectrum.
This is such a beautiful and big space with so many different types of art work. I see acrylic, some work on paper, oils, and photography. How did you and Jack come about creating such a powerful and warm place?
Jack and I have been painting since 2010, for the first time. Jack had always been working with charcoal and pastels and he had asked for an art studio and I said, “let’s get you one!” and from there, I began to ask him if he had ever thought of painting and he had said he hadn’t really thought about it. I then told him, “if you start painting, I will start painting.” From there, he started to paint, and I started to paint, and then my first painting sells and so did the third one I ever did, sold for $4100. And Jack’s first painting was published in the “Art of Autism” book. Here we are, getting so much exposure and getting into galleries, having no clue that we are Autistic, thinking that everyone else can paint this way. Until we came across some people that worked with kids with Autism in the school district and they had asked if we had ever worked with Autistic kids and both Jack and I had no idea what Autism was, all we could compare to was the movie “Rain Man.” We both wound up working with these kids and Jack really had spearheaded to work with these kids through art. From there, we both had the idea to find a gallery and showcase the art. We then found this space, which is 2700 sq. ft., to showcase all the art and then started to reach out to the challenged community. We had so many artists coming in, began the “Heart of the Spectrum” mentorship program, and we took a year off from our own painting, to completely focus on the art gallery and our mission. After we started to paint again and along with the programs running, Jack says, “I am really getting these kids.” And I said, “How much are you getting these kids?” And he says, “I’m really getting these kids.” We started talking and I suggested to him that he should go get tested for Autism and sure enough, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s. And we had no idea! So then, we kept reaching out, he got his painting in the book and after the publication, I started to realize I was really getting the Asperger parents and the older higher functioning adults. And then I decided to get tested, and I have Asperger’s. I had already known at 18 that I had a 154 IQ and I had always had a hard time connecting with people and this is because I’m Autistic. I was already a MENSA member, a high IQ and you have to be in top 2% in order to be connected. I always thought it was because of my IQ that I didn’t connect but this is because of my Asperger’s, I see these very differently. My 1,2,3, is not the same as your 1, 2, 3. I don’t see it the same way.
How do you mean you see it differently?
I’m very logical, just like Spock. Jack and I both do not understand certain things like Hallmark holidays. Why would you love someone more on February 14th? After my dad’s passing, my mom moved into her apartment and I had sent her some flowers and a card, as a son would to reach out to his mother. A few weeks later was Mother’s Day and it’s all I can do to pick up the phone to call, because it is a calendar day, not a day for me to call my mother. I also have spatial aptitude, for example, I walked into this 2700 sq. ft. empty gallery and I painted all the walls in my mind, I designed it all in my mind. I counted everything in place and could see where they went, called the carpenter when I left, and without measuring anything, knew exactly what to tell him to do. When I move in a new house, I see exactly where the furniture goes. But in my mind, this is very normal.
Do you see an empty canvas the same way as you see an empty room? Do you know exactly where all the images go before you start?
No, it’s different on the painting. What I do is look at something that inspires me and I paint it in my own way. For my inspiration paintings, I look at an image of a landscape, and I see images-dark mountains, a tree, scummy flowers, I take the feeling, not the image, the feeling, of the painting, and transfer it my own way. It’s not the same as the original photo but the feeling is the same when you look at my art. It feels like the original photo but it’s not that photo. Whenever I take something in, even if it’s another artists work, I cannot paint that artist’s work because I don’t feel what they do. All my paintings have particular feelings.
There is so much culture in your paintings; you have so many different styles. I notice that your paintings grab so much spirituality with the Buddha’s and the women that are wrapped like with your painting “The Wrong Planet.” Are you trying to send a spiritual message?
I cross lines, but you know what, there is spirituality in me that says “I don’t know where the hereafter is,” or what it means, or if there is even one, but I know that I can reach within myself and feel all cultures. Looking at “The Wrong Planet,” you see she is a woman, who I am not, it is a Middle Eastern painting, which I am not, but what’s happening in this painting is, here is this person, like everyone else, but like no one else, and is so much more, unable to relate to what is around her. A lot of my paintings are autobiographical. Sometimes I feel like I am this dancing bear in a circus and everyone wants to come and see what I can do. The red umbrella in my paintings symbolizes my abilities and the things that people are attracted to but no one sees who I am. They don’t know here I live, they don’t know how I function, and all they know is that this person can paint a painting in an hour. There is so much to paint, I paint the state of being, the feeling. Lots of feelings. “The Party’s Over” painting, there she is, after the party, by herself, with the lanterns burning, all by herself, and the party is over with her beautiful gown. I am autistic, I am a savant, and others that are like me can paint accurately but cannot convey the feeling the same way that I do. I catch feelings and then paint them on a canvas. When I paint, I am in a trance. When a feeling goes in, I have my brush in my hand, my palette knife, my paints, and then I just let it flow. When I’m done, I step away from the canvas, and I see it for the first time. My brain switches to the other side and I see what I have done. Sometimes I literally look at it go, “how did I do that?” I don’t pencil in or anything. It’s like watching a printer printing out something. I start in the corner and then it suddenly starts to flow. The detail just lands where it needs to be. I create a story but I don’t tell it. The viewer can look at the canvas, from their soul, and they can tell the rest of the story. They identify with the loneliness, the place, or something inside of them that stirs them.
It’s amazing how you say you have difficulty relating to people because of Asperger’s but you grasp emotions so well and allow people to feel so much. You grasp so much culture that it feels like you were really there. Have you traveled much?
I traveled some when I was younger but the funny thing about my Autism is that I am able to look at photos, and I can literally feel like I was there. I have this painting that I did of Africa and you can feel the dustiness and the dryness that people will look at it and say, “The Serengeti!” And I have never been there. It comes across as realistic and that’s one of the things, your mind is filling all the details. I don’t have to be detailed because what you include when you see this painting, fills in all the details. When someone is in a feeling of “okay” within themselves, they are cloaked or they are under an umbrella, have a hat on, or some kind of cover. When I get stressed, I like to have some kind of cover on my head and I will only show my eyes, this is very comforting. And this is the relationship that I feel with the wrapped women and the umbrellas. When someone is a in a place where they need to push beyond their environment, I paint (people) undraped, like in the painting “I’m Outta Here.”
Do you teach art classes as well with the Heart of the Spectrum?
I used to help with the mentoring but my art has gone through the rough and my main focus for me right now is to spread the light of Autism and the fact that you do not have to considered less, you can be considered more. I have given hope to so many children and right now, that is all I can do. In the “Steps of Life” painting, there is a younger child leaning on an adult, the child is so trusting that he is leaning. That’s what we do at Heart of the Spectrum; we offer the children in our program a safe place to be themselves. I have no over my paintings but I know that they touch so many people. When I stand before my canvas and my tools, I become a vessel, I hold the tool, and the painting emerges. What I create and what I offer is very powerful and that is the power of the light, not the power of me as a person. We went to Autism Day in Carnation and I was doing a live painting that took 23 minutes to paint. There was a family there with a little girl, who had connected with me and told me that she was Autistic and her parents had told me it was the first time she had admitted to someone that she was Autistic. They loved my painting so much, I told them that they could name their price. They said “$2000” and I gave half of it to the Autism day and paid for their entire employment staff.
You give so much and offer so much through your work and there is no question about your generosity. Do you have any other outlets to release other than painting?
When you have Asperger’s, there are so many things, you have a firework display of so many things. I can see everything, hear everything, I can sense people walking behind me. When I paint, this big firework display, goes into one column and all of the things that happen, come into one painting. Another thing I do, is in my 20s, I started getting really into music and started getting into club DJing and I’m 56 years old and I am the club DJ every Saturday at Rumors in Bellingham! I’m just DJ Mike Tolleson for about 300-700 people. For Asperger’s, my mind never stops working. I go to bed thinking, I wake up thinking, I wake up so many mornings with an instant song in my head, not just the hook, the whole song, and I need to drink a quadruple latte when I get up! When I DJ, I just have a bunch of music that I like, with no plan, I am all energy, and it all comes together. There is a huge amount of college kids surprised that I am the one making them move, I say, “That’s right! Grandpa is playing!”
What are the future plans for Michael Tolleson and the gallery?
If I may be vain, by the end of next year, I plan on being a household name. At immediate, I have 15 pieces of art that are coming out in a book called “Been there, Done that, Try this” which is written by Dr. Tony Attwood, Anita Lesko, and Craig Evans. Dr. Tony Attwood is very well recognized in the Autistic community. The book will be published out of London and is a global book, it will be all over the place. I have my strongest pieces in the book. There is talk about me traveling with the signing of the book and doing live painting. Next, an attorney friend that has bought my art, is friends with the Grammy nominated pianist composer, David Lanz, who has been playing the piano since he was 4 years old and he barely reads or writes music. He has got a couple of pieces that you would recognize, we are putting together a show, I am going to paint live and he is going to compose live, and we are going across the country doing it. I have a dream of finishing big paintings during the show and then auctioning them off and the bulk of it going to local Autistic community and organizations. I don’t care about clothes, I don’t care about cars, houses, I will do anything I have to spread the message of hope.
As part of their dedication, Michael Tolleson and Jack Carl Anderson created a mentorship program called Heart of the Spectrum, an art center dedicated to assisting individuals on the Autism spectrum to develop their skills and express themselves in a safe and creative environment. The program offers mentored art sessions that are in a “structured-free-form” on a weekly basis for 90 minutes with the students ranging from 8 years old to adult hood.
Michael Tolleson’s work grasps every emotion that you have ever felt with the ease of the colors and the subjects that he uses. You feel the power of the horses, your own vulnerabilities and innocence, with images that make you feel like they were made specifically for you.