Savant artist's remarkable list-like drawings are winning recognition
If Gregory Blackstock's drawings were poems, they would have meter and rhyme. There's an orderliness to them that satisfies the pesky drill...
Seattle Times art critic
If Gregory Blackstock's drawings were poems, they would have meter and rhyme. There's an orderliness to them that satisfies the pesky drill sergeant who rules our brains — and also a spark of chaos to thrill the soul.
Artists often work in series. It's a way of searching for the core of an idea or a thing and exploring all its possibilities. Blackstock is doing that, too. It's just that in his list-like drawings of the major forestry pests, knives, poisonous plants, housekeeping tools, monsters of the deep, or whatever, Blackstock does the series all at once, in a single picture. When asked why he likes to draw repetitions of the same thing, Blackstock doesn't get the question. "Those are not the same thing," he points out, correctly.
When Blackstock's exhibition opens tonight at Garde Rail Gallery in Pioneer Square, the artist will be there to celebrate his third gallery show and the publication of his first book: "Blackstock's Collections: The Drawings of an Artistic Savant" (Princeton Architectural Press, $19.95). In the brief time since the book was released, phone calls have flooded the gallery from collectors in New York, London and other distant cities, all wanting to buy Blackstock's extraordinary drawings.
Is the artist happy with his success?
"Oh yeah, relieved," Blackstock said in an interview last week. "I'm famous."
Compact and fit at 60, Blackstock has a fringe of gray curls, a bald pate, expressive face and ready smile. In a crowd, you'd likely overlook him. But when he opens his mouth, Blackstock becomes unforgettable. His deep gravelly voice is amped up to three-times normal volume and comes pouring out in a James Cagney-inflected rush that can be hard to follow. He spikes his conversation with loud sound effects, animal imitations, incongruous questions and raucous laughter, kind of like a nervous kid who isn't quite sure how he's supposed to act.
It is quickly clear that Blackstock's brain processes differently from most. With the classic markers of autistic disorder, he has a prodigious memory and can tell you the exact date of most important events in his life. He can transcribe music he has heard, play the accordion with gusto and recite from movie dialogue as easily as he recalls foreign languages. (The guttural sounds of German delight him and Blackstock loves to camp it up Hollywood-style: "Mein Deutschlander Führer: Sieg Heil!") Years ago he was enrolled in a community college prevocational course in tailoring, and his instructor later remembered Blackstock as the most superb student he'd ever had. But it wasn't Blackstock's thing. "I like tailoring," he said. "I've never been unusually enthused about it."
"Gregory Blackstock: Blackstock's Collections," book signing and opening reception 6-8 tonight. The show continues 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, through Nov. 11 at Garde Rail Gallery, 110 Third Ave. S., Seattle (206-621-1055 or www.garde-rail.com).
It's an old story that artists tend to have a hard time fitting in socially and often aren't appreciated for their special abilities. For Blackstock, the difficulties have been more pronounced because his way of relating to people and the world is so exceptional. When asked what having autism means, though, he summed it up neatly — and defined his biggest problem. "It means I'm not the greatest communicator in the world is what it is."
That social awkwardness has held Blackstock back, but it hasn't stopped him. His cousin, Dorothy Frisch, says Blackstock is by far the hardest working member of the family. For 25 years, until he retired in 2001, Blackstock earned a living as a pot washer at the Washington Athletic Club. He was glad to leave it behind, he says, especially given "the way things were run close to my retirement — too martinet-like and too stern, you know what I mean?" Before that, he held down a job as a janitor and, growing up, was a meticulously responsible newspaper delivery boy, known for carefully placing the paper on each doorstep. He did his various jobs to the best of his ability, yet what helped sustain him has long been the drawing and music he loves.
In the brief biography he wrote out in tidy script for his new book, Blackstock lists as the fourth important marker in his life the summer of 1963, when his father bought him his first accordion.
No. 5 was June 19, 1966, when a drawing he made of Batman — surrounded by his attendant BAM! BOOM! WHOOSH! sound effects — was published in The Seattle Times. (Blackstock has the clipping framed on the wall of his North Seattle studio apartment, which is lined floor to ceiling with mementos.)
No. 7 on Blackstock's biographical list is the death in 1973 of his father, Carl Blackstock, son of the founder of Seattle's Blackstock Lumber company.
No. 8 is the death in 1999 of Gregory's mother, Dorothy Lyons Blackstock, an artist whose oil portrait of popular early Northwest painter Eustace Ziegler is in the collection of the Frye Art Museum. Prodded for the origins of his interest in drawing, Gregory quipped: "I don't know: I take after my mother, don't I?"
No. 9 is Gregory's first show at the Garde Rail Gallery in 2004. Gallery owner Karen Light-Piña arranged the exhibition after receiving samples of Blackstock's drawings from Frisch. The art dealer was intrigued and arranged to meet the artist and look at the work in person. When Blackstock unfurled the thick rolls of drawings, Light-Piña was smitten: "Everything was so stunning and random and funny — and we thought these are what Seattle needs ... "
Turns out, it was just what Blackstock needed, too, Frisch said. "My reading tells me that when savants have the ability to pursue what they are gifted at they become more integrated, and we as a family have really noticed that with Greg," she said. "He's less stressed; he tracks better; he listens better; he's calmer. The OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] which is often part of autism, is improving. He is much happier."
Now that he is retired, Blackstock is enjoying his time. He gets together regularly with a Circle of Friends from Bridge Ministries for Disability Concerns, who help look out for him. He loves to travel and is leaving for Manchester, New Hampshire, after his show opens. (Blackstock has been drawing barns in New England. He's already done a series of 40 from Vermont.) Every place he visits, Blackstock also takes lots of photographs, "mainly for educational and recreational purposes," he says. He plays his accordion outside Seahawks games and has become pals with Edward McMichael, the tuba guy. Blackstock does his own cooking and devises extraordinary recipes, some of which — including the amazing "Cream of Pickle Soup" — are in "Blackstock Collections."
So, is there anything the artist would like us to know about his work?
"I don't know what to say here," Blackstock hesitated. After a moment's thought, he had it: "The world's best."
Sheila Farr: email@example.com
Information in this article, originally published October 5, was corrected October 5. Seattle's Blackstock Lumber Company, founded in 1912, is still in operation. A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that the company — whose former building burned in 1989 — no longer exists. The company had moved to a nearby location before the fire. Additionally, the art show referred to in the story is Gregory Blackstock's third at Garde Rail Gallery, not the second.
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