'I am Awe-tistic': opening minds to life on the spectrum

Cultural Heart

“There are no real rules when it comes to art and that freedom is what I love. With freedom comes self-expression and when you can be yourself, amazing things can happen.
Eliza, artist

25-year-old Eliza is part of a group of emerging young Adelaide artists on the autism spectrum inviting you to take a peek into their world at ‘I am Awe-tistic’ – a heart-warming and hopefully label-breaking exhibition showing at the City Library from 7 August to 27 September as part of the 2020 South Australian Living Artists (SALA) festival.

Passionate community artist Claire Wildish is the curator of ‘I am Awe-tistic’. A “gypsy by nature’’, Claire’s creative journey has taken her from regional New South Wales, to the small community of Irrunytju in Western Australia’s Western Desert region, and now to Adelaide - which has been home since 2015.

“I had spent summers as a teenager in Adelaide - sampling dumplings on Gouger Street, lolling under Aunty Dibby’s plum tree, riding down to the sea to float around, lusting after Gladys Sym Choons’ shoes.”

Claire wildish pic 6

Community artist and curator, Claire Wildish, in the City Library.

Along with fond childhood memories, in Irrunytju, Claire had connected with some of Adelaide’s major cultural institutions through her work.

“I had glimpsed the Adelaide art world and it seemed different. It was a community full of nurture and the thrill of shared ideas and collaborating to make them happen.”

Since the start of 2020 Claire has run Art Steps - an art program at Autism South Australia that she initiated with her favourite collaborator Robyn Finlay to give young people on the spectrum a supportive space to explore their curiosities creatively.

“One of the magical things I’ve seen at Art Steps is how everyone has blossomed. At first it was heads down, drawing in their individual sketch books. Now, I think they come number one to see their friends. It’s a place of shared understanding. There’s no judgement, they just get to be themselves. And, they get excited about each other’s ideas! They gather round each other’s tables helping each other out when they get stuck and working it out together. It is exciting to watch.”

Inspired by the talent of these young creatives, Claire successfully applied to Council’s SALA Exhibition Project - which annually awards an emerging local curator with the chance to connect people with contemporary art in an unconventional gallery.

“This exhibition is all about giving young emerging artists on the autism spectrum a voice, so we can celebrate their hearts and minds and explore the special things they are passionate about. The artists are inviting you to peek into their world, to listen to their story, share their passions and to see them not as artists on the spectrum, but as just artists.”
Claire Wildish, curator

The opportunity to exhibit within the City Library was icing on the cake for Claire who describes libraries as “places of creative dreaming” and spaces that feel familiar and safe to the artists as well.

Eliza has attended Claire’s program since March, first in person until COVID-19 saw classes switch to online. Her artistic interests lie in poetry, painting and crochet, and she’s found Art Steps an excellent vehicle for self-expression.

“I get to be myself and that is welcomed and encouraged at Art Steps. Even better, we can all relate to each other and understand each other. (Through the exhibition) I really hope that people can learn that people on the spectrum are just like any other person. We have feelings and talents just like any everyone else, but I also would like people to understand that people on the spectrum are also unique. As this quote by Dr Steven Shore shows: ‘If you've met one person with autism you’ve met one person with autism’.”
Eliza, artist and exhibitor

Eliza painting

'Invisible trap' |artist: Eliza Dreyer

Claire is the first to admit that there’s much to learn about people living on the autism spectrum, but from knowledge comes understanding and she encourages everyone to experience ‘I am Awe-tistic’ with an open mind and heart.

“Sometimes when you put a label on someone, it makes you think you understand them,” said Claire. “You can categorise them in your brain. But each person on the spectrum, like all of us, is unique. No two people are the same. The differences are massive and can depend on the combinations of social ability, communication level, cognitive ability, age, personality and many, many other factors.”

The works in ‘I am Awe-tistic’ encompass multiple mediums: artist books, lino and digital prints, paintings, poetry, map making, zines, textiles, 3D works, animation and intimate video conversation.

“My favourite piece in the exhibition is my painting of the girl on the swing which also depicts the coloured ghostly figures rising from her head," said Eliza. "I was trying to show that people on the spectrum can sometimes have other invisible struggles and can sometimes feel trapped by these struggles. Just because a person is on the spectrum that does not limit their potential and I really want people to see that.”

Claire describes Eliza as “one of the bravest people I know” and credits her with the exhibition’s title.

“I was in the middle of writing the submission to City Library for the exhibition and she sent me a text. It was a picture of her latest  embroidery. It said, “I am Awe-tistic”. And that was that.”

Thomas is another Art Steps participant. The 15-year-old is keen on illustration and making videos and excited to be part of the exhibition.

“The one I’m proud of showing is the house I drew in MS Paint, because most of the things I drew in that artwork were suggested by other members of Art Steps. I believe that it was a good thing because it was a community project that we went ahead and put together not just as a group, but as a community of artists.”

House by thomas


Like Eliza, Thomas hopes exhibition visitors will learn a little more about life on the spectrum.

“I hope that they should not use it as an insult or as a rude manner and that they would learn that we are not that different than the rest of the community; that we should not be treated differently from the rest of the community and I hope that everyone would learn to tolerate us knowing that we have a differently functioning brain than the rest of society.”

Along with works created by artists in the Art Steps program, this exhibition will include pieces by students at Cabra Dominican College, ‘Oh Brother’ - a comic created by Georgina Chadderton which was inspired by growing up alongside her younger brother who has severe autism and an intellectual disability - plus artworks created by some of Georgina’s own students and other Adelaide comic creators like Marley Boyce (work pictured above).

“There are lots of surprises in the exhibition that will be interactive, and throughout its duration, we will run our regular Saturday Autism SA Art Steps Program as a community wide workshop in the library," said Claire.

"Every week the workshop will mirror elements of the exhibition. You might find us map-making one week or zine-making the next. It’s pushing Artist in Residence to the next level so you should come and be a part of it.”

Excerpt from oh brother by g chadderton

‘How to explain Rob’ | artist: Georgina Chadderton

Exhibition details

‘I am Awe-tistic’: SALA Exhibition Project

Friday 7 August 2020 (opening night) to Sunday 27 September 2020

City Library, Third Floor, Rundle Place

Enter via Francis Street, off Rundle Mall or Da Costa Arcade (stairs and lift access)

Opening Hours

For more information about the Opening Night and exhibition details, visit the event page.

Discover other SALA events supported by the City of Adelaide

Good Evening Adelaide

Hutt Street Library

7 August to 6 October 2020

From Adversity to Positive Diversity

Tynte Street Library

7 August to 4 October 2020

You’re Only Human, After All

Adelaide Town Hall – Reconciliation Room and First Floor Gallery

6 July - 23 October 2020

Article by

Skye Murtagh

Skye Murtagh

Skye is passionate about sharing stories from all walks of life. When she's not busy weaving beautiful words together, she's singing a line or two from her favourite song.