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Michael Tutson Speaks Art

This guest blog post is from Glen Finland, author of Next Stop: An Autistic Son Grows Up, Penguin's 2012 Pick for National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Michael Jaworek knows talent when he sees it.  A concert promoter for over 35 years, he books acts at The Birchmere, the legendary music hall in Alexandria, VA, where he’s developed a flair for spotlighting acclaimed artists.  So, he followed his instincts at a recent silent auction when he zeroed in on “Ellington,” a painting by a 29-year old artist from Anacostia.  He says, “It captured the vitality of jazz, its grit and its grace, and especially Ellington’s music which epitomizes those qualities.”

Jaworek came upon the painting mid-September at a Washington, DC, benefit for St. John’s Community Services, the 150-year old local non-profit organization that supports and advances community opportunities for people living with disabilties. The artist, Michael Tutson, works in acrylics in a thickly textured style with nuanced pastels and striking black lines. Tutson the artist also has autism.

A 2006 graduate of DC’s Anacostia High School, Tutson started painting at age three—dinosaurs, boats, and fireworks in pencil, charcoal, or water colors—whatever he could get his hands on.  To his mother, Diane Hansborough-Tutson, it looked like abstract art.  She says her son began to paint seriously when he became involved in the Washington Very Special Arts program, now the Kennedy Center Very Special Arts.

The artist’s mother, who runs her own upholstering and decorative furniture business, says Michael “takes a lot of pride in whatever he does”—whether its mastering the Metro schedules, teaching himself American Sign Language out of a book, or singing in the men’s choir at Zion Hill Baptist Church on Georgia Avenue.  He loves music; in fact, he hums to himself while you’re talking to him. 

“He’s a perfectionist who hates to stop painting at the end of the day because he loves it so much,” says Hansborough-Tutson.  She says her son’s paintings have sold for as much as four hundred dollars. Others he simply gives away to friends. 

“His way of communicating with people is to share what he has. He communicates, not necessarily verbally, but in gestures,” says his mother.  “Like sharing his candy with six or seven people at lunch every day.  My Tootsie Roll bill is so high—you wouldn’t believe it.”

Marvin Brown, who has become Tutson’s mentor at a D.C. day program called Art Options, calls Tutson “a god-gifted talent” who “speaks art.” 

“I think of him as an artist who just happens to be autistic, rather than an autistic artist. A lot of people pre-judge Michael because of it or they patronize him in conversation. They ask him where does he get his inspiration?  But you won’t find the answer because you’re looking for your own kind of answer, one that you can understand.  Michael paints because this is what he likes to do.”

Brown says Tutson often paints on commission from photographs his clients send him and he’s created enough high quality work to have his own shows at local galleries. The goal is to make Tutson financially independent through his art work. Brown says he’s committed to making those connections a reality for Tutson, but he credits Michael’s mother Diane, an entrepreneur in her eponymous business, as a great advocate and role model for her son.

For now, back at The Birchmere, Tutson’s painting of  jazz great Duke Ellington and three saxophonists is primed to go on permanent display.  In the next few weeks, Jaworek will install “Ellington” on his newly renovated office wall for the music hall’s rotating band of celebrated artists to view.

 “It is a great American painting.  And Michael is a great American painter,” says Jaworek, whose own 23-year old son Lee is also a painter on the autism spectrum.  Perhaps that’s what gives this Tutson fan an insider’s knowledge of the artist’s purpose. 

“They think differently,” says Jaworek, the promoter. 

“They see differently,” says Brown, the mentor. 

“My baby got a plan,” says Diane, the entrepreneur.