Man with Asperger's syndrome finds calm in his art

Author: Posted on: Saturday, 14 February 2015 02:50 864 Category: Latest News
Collage artist John Williams, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, talks about how creating art helps him cope with his condition. Williams will have an art show at the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center
For John M. Williams, the world is a strange and chaotic place. It's confusing. It makes him anxious.

But Williams has a place of refuge when the world gets to be a little too much.

He has his art. And his art makes everything better.

"It's like trying to hold something at bay," says Williams, 33, of Winchester, Mass. "It's one of the ways that I can perhaps make sense of things."

Williams – who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at a young age — says his cut-paper collages of landscapes and historical figures mirror the way he sees the world: Fragmented and disorienting with thoughts constantly swirling through his head.

Fifty eight of those images are on display today through Feb. 24 at Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in downtown Fort Myers.

"It's kind of relaxing to me," Williams says about the therapeutic benefit he gets from his art. "It's soothing, somehow.

"It's one of the things I can actually focus on.... And so I don't feel so self-conscious."

Jim Griffith, director of Davis Art Center, says he was impressed with Williams' art when he first saw it last year. And he was even more impressed by the autistic artist and his methods.

"A picture that we see whole, he sees as 100 pieces to another picture," Griffith says. "It's just an amazing thing. I was mesmerized by it."

Williams did his first paper collage at his Massachusetts high school, but he didn't start getting serious about the medium until he attended art school at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He did a series of collages for his art thesis and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2008.

That eventually evolved into his deeply researched, meticulously arranged portraits of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi, Nixon and Sacagawea. He also does landscapes and images of animals.

His Estero father — retired Billerica, Mass., city manager Bill Williams — minored in history in college, but he says his son's knowledge puts him to shame.

"I'm challenged to keep up with him," he says. "He's like a professor."

Williams says he struggles with anxiety and disorientation from his Asperger's, a condition that's part of the autism spectrum of disorders. Too much external stimuli can be distracting, he says, and he has difficulty focusing and interacting with people in social situations.

"Asperger's is a constant factor in my life," Williams says, staring down at his lap but looking up from time to time to make eye contact. "Even if I don't appear extremely anxious, I can seem a bit nervous.

"It's more or less constant. I just have to keep it under control each day, really…. And art is one of the ways I do so."

Collage artist John Williams, a resident of Massachusetts, specializes in using cut-paper to create his work. John, who is autistic, says the fragmented images help him make sense of the world. His work will be exhibited at the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center in Downtown Fort Myers February 6-24.
Williams' work has been shown in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New England. He was also featured in the book, "Drawing Autism," published last year by Akashic Books.

Williams says he's fascinated by historical figures — especially those from the Civil War — and he visits Civil War battlegrounds and devours photos, movies and books while researching each portrait. All that pours into his work.

After researching and sketching out his ideas, he searches glossy magazines such as National Geographic for images, colors and textures that he feels fits each subject. He pays special attention to the eyes.

Williams admits there's a lot of himself in his collages, and he says he has a strong emotional attachment to each portrait. And that's especially visible in the eyes.

"Eye control is something I still work on, for sure," he says. "The eyes tell you more than you realize.

"And some of these subjects have their eyes averted — which tells you a little about me, as well."

Williams can spend several weeks working on one portrait. The process gives him structure and a sense of purpose, he says, and it's easy to lose himself when he's working. And that's kind of the point.

"It's like I'm doing it without having to think too much," he says. "People say, 'How do you do it?' And I say, 'I don't know.'

"It's kind of like you're coming into your own. You're just doing whatever it is you do best."

If You Go

•What: John M. Williams art exhibit

•When: Reception from 6-10 p.m. today during Art Walk. The exhibit continues through Feb. 24.

•Where: Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, 2301 First St., downtown Fort Myers

•Admission: Free

•Gallery hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday

•Info: 333-1933 or

•More: Williams will also speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday for an Art Talk Tuesday at the gallery. Admission is $5.
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