The artist of the month is Michael Allen, a gifted painter who along with his remarkable family is a member of our community. Michael lives and works in Lebanon County, PA.
When I asked whether either of his parents were artists, Michael to us, “My dad’s an engineer. He draws and builds bridges in major cities.” But interestingly, it was Michael’s father’s father (also an engineer) who first inspired Michael with painting. “In his retirement, he took up painting and I only remember him in his retirement. He had a studio in the back and I always went to see what he was working on.”
Michael, like many adults of his age, only learned about dyslexia through his son. When his son’s tester asked “Did you have trouble?”, he answered that he did have trouble and was in a remedial reading class, but he also did well in school.
Michael: I still like to read, but I read very slowly.I found a way of kind of skimming to get a feel of what the symbols were. I read a paragraph 2-3 times before I comprehend it. I found a way to deal with it.
Fernette: Do you have any tips to share about how you were able to do well in school?
Michael: I had to go to class and I had to write things down. That’s my trigger. If a classmate would look at my notes, all they would see is gibberish – it’s just the trigger. It’s the note that I recall that leads me to the memory. If a question appears on a test, I’ll recall writing something down at the time, and then my teacher saying it. If I didn’t go to class and tried to catch up by reading the book, I did terrible. I couldn’t have that visual moment to recall unless I could create it.
Fernette: That’s fascinating. As a group, it seems as if most dyslexic students we’ve spoken to tell us that they recall memories as scenes rather than decontextualized facts. There are different networks in the brain depending on whether information is recalled as a scene taking place at specific location and time or something more generically.
Because of our book and research, we’ve been interested in advantages and strengths that might come with dyslexic thinking. Do you have any thoughts about your strengths and differences that might be helpful in your work as a painter?
Michael: Well, I love to draw. I also deal with the world in a visual manner so that drawing what I see whether literally or out of my imagination makes a lot of sense to me. When it came time for me to go to college, art is what I felt I knew best.
I stuck with it and then I was fortunate enough to study with a group of people who opened doors for me as far as the history of art and possibilities of art..it gave me an outlet to explore my visual ideas.
Fernette: Who did you study with?
Michael: I went to a state school Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. It’s 3 hrs out of New York City and at that time they were all exhibiting in NYC and at the top of their game. An opportunity to study with them was perfect timing…just what I needed.
Fernette: Did you ever think there was a tension between thinking visually and verbally and that that could be a challenge in school?
Michael: Yes, I still struggle with that a lot. I went on to get my masters degree at the University of Delaware and taught in the college system for a little while and still teach some workshops and classes here and there. It’s still very difficult for me to find the words and put things together verbally. That’s always been my kind of struggle. Easier to think visually than to write something out or speak it.
Also most of how I get through the day is visual. If I drive somewhere, I know how much time it takes to get to that tree or if I’m at this street corner. We joke around the house, What time do you think it is? I’ll look at the light on the trees and think about what time of year it is and think it’s probably 5:30 and it’s 5:36! I don’t know if that’s my years of looking at painting and understanding that light and colors and understanding seasonal change or an aspect of dyslexia…or both! That’s one of those things I thought – everybody does that.
As far as painting goes, most of my painting is done on-site. My June painting was done in 45 minute increments just after sunrise June 2013 and June 2014. If I do something in the studio, I take the on-site paintings and recreate them using memory. I have a crazy visual memory.
Fernette: Does that mean you can recall colors really well?
Michael: Yes. Part of my graduate work was in restoration. There was a color course where we were tested on high-end color aptitude and I scored very high on that – so that along with the ability to memorize- really recall a memory of that is really crucial to what I do as a painter.
Fernette: How do you choose what you decide to paint?
Michael: They’re moments that click for me. What you see in the artwork is not verbatim reality – it’s not like a photograph of a moment. They’re constructed out of actual experience mixed with memory.
Fernette: What about powers of observation? I would think you’re a pretty good observer.
Michael: They are pretty astute, but that’s what I do as a painter – my daily training.
Fernette: What about telling facial expressions or other types of visual information?
Michael: I could always read people pretty well. I could always tell if they were being genuine or not.
Fernette: I’d like to close by asking about your woodworking and also find out where people can view and purchase your paintings.
Michael: I make frames for all my artwork and I also work as a cabinet maker. My father, the bridge builder was a cabinet maker by hobby. I always grew up in a woodworking atmosphere. I also build furniture for the house and Benjamin and I built a Viking Longship. He’ll be 10 soon. He researched the longship and in a roundabout way, he made it in the same way they would’ve at that time.
Fernette: Fantastic! I saw Jessica’s blog Cattails and Cobwebs! It’s wonderful! Michael, you, Jessica, and Benjamin seem like you’re living a dream – being able to work in a creative profession and also to have a pretty idyllic educational curriculum that allows you to learn and create together. I’d like to recommend to our readers that they check out more of your work and visit Jessica’s blog. A link to Michael’s artwork can be found here: Michael Allen Studio or the galleries Somerville-Manning or Lancaster Galleries.
If any of our readers know of other artists or individuals to interview for this blog, please contact Fernette at dyslexicadvantage “at” gmail.com, and thank you!