San Francisco

San Mateo Teen With Autism Becomes Surprise Selection in Major Museum Exhibition

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When San Francisco's de Young Museum put out an open call last summer for artworks by Bay Area artists for a special exhibition, it got nearly 11,000 submissions, which a jury then whittled down to just under 800 -- not knowing who the artists were behind the works.

It came as a surprise when it was revealed one of the pieces chosen -- an abstract blue painting with layered colored squares was somewhat symbolic of the colorfully layered artist behind it -- a severely autistic San Mateo teenager named James Lee de Guzman aka "Jamesey."

"The competition was stiff because it was open to any artist in the San Francisco Bay Area," said James' mom Crisanta de Guzman. "So I thought well let’s just enter."

James' selection to be in the show might have been unusual -- but it was the anonymity behind his art that set him on an even playing field alongside thousands of other artists.

James Lee de Guzman, aka Jamesey, paints a canvas in the family's backyard in San Mateo.

Crisanta, also an artist, raised her son on art. He was diagnosed to be on the autistic spectrum when he was two years old. Though his vocabulary is limited, he learned to express himself from a young age through drawing and paints.

While he always made art, James' painting kicked into high gear as a result of the pandemic. As Bay Area county's issued stay-at-home orders back in March, James special needs school in San Anselmo closed. Crisanta, like many parents, felt a bolt of panic; how would she keep her son busy.

"Everyone was lining up at the supermarket," Crisanta said, "and I just rushed to Michael’s and bought all the painting supplies we could."

James began painting every day -- investing his frenetic energy into lavishing paint on canvas after canvas. Crisanta helped him develop a style by covering squares with cellophane, which James painted over and later peeled off, creating squares of layered colors. As he painted, he seemed to come alive through the motion of brush to canvas.

"A lot of it I think is sensory," Crisanta said. "There’s the pure pleasure of just the feel of the paint and slapping it on the canvas."

As James paints, he sings, rocks and dances -- urgently squeezing paint into red plastic cups, and conveying it to its destination with blistering energy. And then, without warning, he will stop to pause to stare at his creation -- occasionally grabbing the canvas from the easel and flinging it to the ground when he's decided it's done. Jackson Pollack may have met his match.

"We go through a lot of paint," winced his mom, who calls her son's latest volley of artworks, James' "pandemic series."

Crisanta saw the de Young's call for artists over the summer for a special open exhibit focused on Bay Area artists. She entered James' work, not knowing thousands of other artists were doing the same thing. When she found out he had been chosen, she was the one celebrating.

"So when he got in we were just over the moon," she said. "James of course didn’t realize what it meant."

His interest grew, however, when she explained that if he became a famous painter and people bought his paintings, he could go to Michael's whenever he wanted to buy materials.

"Purple canvas up the ladder?" he blurted out, his code for the big giant canvas on the top shelf in Michael's that can only be accessed by a ladder. Crisanta had bought him such a giant canvas a while back, only to discover it wouldn't fit in the car. She had to borrow a friend's truck to get the canvas home.

James had long demonstrated his love for art at Oak Hill School in San Anselmo where he could often be found sitting on the ground drawing images into the dirt.

"He has taken his art and used that," said Michael Breard, the executive director of Oak Hill, "and made that a strategy for himself to cope with a world that is overwhelming at times."

Breard said he was stunned and excited when James' art was included in the de Young exhibit.

"This was not a special needs selection at the de Young Museum, this was an art call for all artists," Breard said. "The fact that his piece got selected is nothing short of remarkable."

Crisanta is using her son's newfound fame to sell some of his art works in an online auction, with all the money going to support Oak Hill during its rough pandemic year. The auction wraps up this weekend.

The de Young exhibit was scheduled to run through Jan. 4. But due to the latest pandemic surge, the museum shut down for in-person visits. The open exhibition can be viewed on its website.

Crisanta said it made her happy that her son's art was finding an audience -- and more importantly, that he found joy in making it.

"To get to do what you love and to raise funds and consciousness for a cause you believe in," she said, "that’s as good as it gets."

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