Leona Christie is a visual arts professor at SUNY Albany and has a brother named Gavin Christie. Gavin Christie is an autistic savant who lives in Birmingham, MI. Gavin types lists of memories that he shows to employees in shops near his home. Each day, once the lists become obsolete, Gavin throws them away. Growing up, Leona was impressed by Gavin’s lists. She told the Independent, “I used to show Gavin’s lists to friends as evidence of his uncanny ability to remember. He used to read the TV Guide all week, for instance, and when the week was over, and the TV Guide was thrown out, he would re-write every listing, in order, from memory.” She didn’t see Gavin’s lists as artistically significant until she studied art in college and was introduced to Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966), a comprehensive photo documentation of every building on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Leona explained, “Ruscha’s piece taught me that deadpan delivery of visual information—when it carried social, poetic, or emotional content—could be art.” Leona told the Independent that she has taken on the task of translating Gavin’s projects “from an ephemeral medium (word processor ink on copy paper) to an archival medium (fine art printmaking).”
Gavin is something of an archivist, and Leona considers herself an archivist of his archives. His lists are repetitive and sometimes fictionalized. In a video documenting the pair’s road trip to Chicago, posted on their blog darkwoodslightwoods.wordpress.com, Gavin records the business hours of a bakery as opening one hour earlier and closing one hour later than stated on the sign. In a talk that Leona gave at Brown on October 25th, she pointed out that Gavin, in documenting dates of births and marriages, always records them as one year earlier—retroactively extending their duration, if only in his archive. He calls this time “extra bonus days.” When the Independent asked him when he began considering his lists ‘projects’ he said, “The real life version answer is June 30, 1990. The fictionalized version answer is July 1st, 1989.”
An example of a written work, from his Dark Woods, and Light Woods project, is a list of driving directions:
HERE ARE MORE OF THE COOLEST
COUNTRYSIDE PARTS, GAS STATIONS, FOOD PLACES, AND
MILEAGE DISTANCES OFF I-75:
THEN GO STRAIGHT AGAIN THROUGH MORE
DARK WOODS JUST AFTER THE
M-15 CLARKSTON-DAVIDSON INTERCHANGE,
THEN CURVE RIGHT AGAIN THROUGH MORE DARK WOODS
JUST BEFORE THE SHASHABAW RD.INTERCHANGE,
THEN GO STRAIGHT AGAIN THROUGH MORE DARK WOODS,
THEN CURVE RIGHT AGAIN THROUGH MORE DARK WOODS,
THEN GO STRAIGHT AGAIN THROUGH MORE DARK WOODS,
THEN CURVE LEFT AGAIN THROUGH MORE DARK WOODS
JUST BEFORE THE BALDWIN RD.INTERCHANGE,
ABBY’S, CHILLI’S ELIAS BROTHERS BIG BOY
FAMILY RESTAURANT, MAX AND ERMA’S
RESTAURANT, MC DONALD’S, ON THE
BOARDER MEXICAN RESTAURANT, WENDY’S,
MOBIL GAS STATION, SHELL GAS STATION,
AND SUNOCO GAS STATION ARE ALL
AT THE BALDWIN RD.INTERCHANGE
Leona works hard to maintain the integrity of Gavin’s projects as she transforms each into a blind debossed print. She described the medium to the Independent as “indented impression, printed without ink, which privileges light and shadow, and visual shape (positive/negative space) over legibility.” Leona explained that her medium highlights Gavin’s content, as the interplay of shadows on the prints mirror the dark and light woods Gavin references. She went on to explain that in her prints she wants to “emphasize the physicality of the paper as a receptor/carrier of memory, as in a memorial, or even graven stone… to convey the emotional/psychological weight embedded within the lists of directions.” Another component of Gavin’s projects that strikes Leona is his use of repetition and pattern. In her prints she wants to show how Gavin systematically shapes his text. She wants “the viewer to see how his system of repetition creates organization and design, and to appreciate the harmonious balance of positive/negative shape and space that results within each page.”
In the video “How to make a Print with your Autistic Savant Brother,” which she produced for the Southern Graphics Council International Conference earlier this year, she writes that Gavin “types his observations and memories into patterned lists that you find poetic and musical.” She’s aware of the danger of being unfair to her brother and his developmental difference—a black slide in the film reads: “Avoid exploiting, emphasizing, or medicalizing his disability.” The slide that follows: “if possible.”
As Leona recognizes, this work is beautiful in its repetition and meter, but there is more to be said about the content of Gavin’s projects. While Gavin’s writing calls into question the category of what most people take for granted as relevant, functional information—what counts as acceptable driving directions, for example—his intention seems to be to archive, not to challenge. When asked why he makes lists and projects, Gavin told the Independent, “Because I enjoy doing it so much, that’s why. I enjoy remembering stuff. Because the past is nice and fun, that’s why.”
It’s worth wondering if putting Gavin’s work in a gallery is to somehow unduly venerate his mental state because what is attractive about his work is so intuitive, simply the product of his way of being. To answer to such a question would require a prescriptive definition of artistic process, which would be impossible to determine.
As audiences may look to art to help them see things differently or understand new intricacies, to appreciate Gavin’s projects is to strive for an understanding of his mental experience. In “Madness and Civilization,” Foucault discusses the position of the ‘madman’ as a purveyor of truth in fables that circulated during the Renaissance. The lunatic, he said, was thought to be tapped into a forbidden font of wisdom. While Gavin’s work seems delightfully absurd, playful, yet astute, Gavin himself is presumably serious and earnest in producing it. I read Gavin’s work as a commentary on paradigms of information and knowledge, but Gavin seems to produce it as more of a historical archive. When asked if he considers himself an artist, Gavin told the Independent, “I think so, because of all that great writing I do in my notebook.” While Gavin indentifies as an artist, the art he produces arguably comes from a different place than does the art of someone making a critical commentary on the male gaze, for instance. While everybody’s brain is unique, the fact that Gavin has the brain of an autistic savant raises questions about an audience’s fundamental understanding of his work.
Found Magazine, a print and web collection of reader found images and notes, operates on a similar principle—decontextualized art. It’s obvious why people find notes like “Mano, I fucking hate you. You said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place?? You’re a fucking LIAR I hate you I fucking hate you -Amber. PS Page me later” intriguing. Work published in Found, like Gavin’s work, is decontextualized, albeit in a different way; the Found audience doesn’t know the producer just like Gavin’s audience probably doesn’t know what it’s like to be an autistic savant. Focusing on relics of an experience or circumstance that a viewer can’t directly know allows for the creation of a rich imagined reality. It’s unclear how benign this is when talking about conceiving of mental differences. It’s also unclear how to celebrate and appreciate Gavin’s work in a way that’s thoroughly respectful, how to refrain from appreciating such work on the grounds of pure spectacle or novelty. Perhaps the fact that Gavin is an autistic savant shouldn’t matter at all in a reading of the art, perhaps the circumstances of Gavin and Leona’s art just distract from the fact of the work.
Although Gavin didn’t write these projects with the intention of showing them in a gallery, he agreed to show them—but for now he says he can’t commit to attending any more art openings. He told Leona, “If I change my mind, I’ll let you know, Leona Christie.” Leona explained to the Independent “when he says [this], it often means he will actually, in fact, change his mind. It’s part of the ritual of our friendship.” While he isn’t planning on attending any openings, his work will be featured in the show “So to Speak” at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, New York early next year. Gavin is now interested in making a book, and Leona is helping him compile his work. Leona told the Independent that the book, which will include Gavin’s work and Leona’s exegesis, will probably be published this summer—the working title is “Gavin’s Memoir So Far.”
CLAUDIA NORTON B’14 is a suspect in a high-speed chase down I-15.