A Homer artist known for his bold, bright color-pen drawings of animals and people has been selected for an international show opening next week at 28on27 gallery in New York City. Erik Behnke is one of 23 artists appearing in the show, DOWNrightART, part of a celebration of visual and performing arts for World Down Syndrome Day on March 21.
Behnke is the only Alaskan invited for the show and one of two from the Pacific Northwest. He displays his prints “Eagle Looking,” “Happy Skier,” “Bear Eating a Fish” and “Fox Sniffing a Flower.” All show his trademark technique of stylized images colored with ink markers.
“This is so exciting. I am so jazzed,” said Behnke’s mother, Linda Thompson, who helps him market and sell his work through their company, Brown Bear Productions.
Behnke, who has Down Syndrome and autism, is entirely self-taught in his art. Thompson wrote about her son’s discovery of his talent in her books, “It’s OK Mom” and “Erik’s Story.”
“He never listened to me. I don’t know if he listened to any art teachers,” Thompson said. “He always listened inner, to what was inside him.”
Thompson wrote her master’s thesis on artistic savants with Down Syndrome like Behnke. Her son is one of an elite group of nationally known Down Syndrome artists, she said. Many of them will be at World Down Syndrome Day events.
“It’s going to be so exciting to meet all these artists from Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia,” she said.
One thing Thompson discovered is that Down Syndrome artists almost always use “bright, bright colors,” she said. “I didn’t see anyone that uses black ink pen. They love color.”
On the theme “Abilities and Possibilities,” the three-day celebration of art runs March 21-23 and also features movies with Down Syndrome actors and music by Down Syndrome musicians. Performing on the last day is Chris Burke and his Band. Burke starred as Corky in the television show, “Life Goes On,” about a family with a Down Syndrome son.
Held at the United Nations, the celebration starts with a speech on World Down Syndrome Day by U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon. It includes discussions on new research in cognitive abilities of people with Down Syndrome and the role of siblings of Down Syndrome children.
Thompson’s son Christopher Behnke is a good example of that role, Thompson said. Erik Behnke speaks softly and quietly, and often is shy among strangers.
“He became the communicator between Erik and me for a number of years. He told me what Erik was trying to tell me,” Thompson said of Christopher. “Siblings have an important role for any child with disability.”
Thompson and Behnke visit New York for six days, and like any tourists to the Big Apple plan to take in many popular sites: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero at the site of the fallen World Trade Towers.
Behnke has been to other events honoring Down Syndrome artists, such as art shows in Phoenix and National Down Syndrome Congress meetings.
“He likes to go to things like this,” Thompson said. “He likes people telling him they love his art.”
Thompson is especially pleased an Alaskan has been invited to the DOWNrightART show.
“It’s wonderful that Alaska can be recognized, that we’ve got a wonderful artist here and he gets international recognition for his art,” she said. “I think it’s important that people don’t look at Down Syndrome and see a label. They look at all the possibilities.”
A special education teacher at Homer High School, Thompson previously had spent her summers traveling with Behnke to art and craft shows. This year they’ll be staying in Homer, where Behnke and Thompson run a gallery on the Homer Spit. Brown Bear Products opens for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, with regular summer hours staring the Memorial Day weekend.