Maxwell Bitton, a 24-year-old artist with autism, is changing the way society views people with this disorder by showing it how he sees the world.
Until March 27, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is exhibiting about 50 of his works, mostly paintings, but also sculpture and installation.
Bitton is the first graduate of a new MMFA program called The Art of Being Unique to have his creations given a solo showing. The works are mounted in the J.A. DeSève Gallery of the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion. The program is a residency for young adults age 18 to 40 living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or an intellectual disability. It is designed to develop both their artistic talents and their social skills through contact with art and the guidance of artists and educators.
Bitton began by visiting the MMFA’s galleries, looking at its numerous and varied collections for inspiration.
Then, in studio, he created the works for the exhibition, which also includes pieces he completed last year under the guidance of painter Lucie Chicoine, with whom he has worked for three years, and others created with artist Pierre Durette.
On view are striking figurative paintings, mostly in acrylic on canvas, but also in wood and other materials. They range from portraits, mostly of women but also a series of self-portraits, to the large-scale Green Light in New York City, which was rendered in acrylic on Mylar polyester film, then sprayed with water, resulting in dramatic red and black streaks for this cityscape.
Animals are another of Bitton’s favourites, especially birds – owls, roosters, crows, to name a few.
The Myth of Napoleon, no doubt inspired by the MMFA’s unparallelled Ben Weider collection, is a two-piece installation consisting of a dramatic painting of a white horse prancing against a regal purple, gold and red backdrop and an accompanying formal chair with a portrait of the French emperor on its oval back.
For a touch of whimsy, there are three papier maché cat heads and a painting of a large pair of shoes.
All works bear Bitton’s bold signature, “Maxwell.”
The MMFA is working in partnership with Concordia University’s art education department to find ways that art may specifically benefit those with ASD, whether through intensive art training such as that Bitton undertook, or simply visits. Pilot projects are underway with the Miriam Foundation, Giant Steps, Les Petits Rois and École Irénée Lussier.
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In what it claims is a world first, the MMFA’s education department has hired two people, one with autism and another with an intellectual disability, on its team.
Bitton credits a teacher he had at Giant Steps School with discovering his talent.
Five years ago, during a computer science class at the special education school, Ross White noticed Bitton’s drawing of Pinocchio on an iPad. Rather than scolding him for doodling, the teacher encouraged him in his creativity.
His father, Charles, recognizing his gift, enrolled his son in classes with Chicoine.
Bitton had his first solo exhibition titled His World in late 2014, with all proceeds going to the Giant Steps Foundation to express his gratitude.
Charles Bitton said at the current exhibition’s opening on Feb. 15 that “art has had a positive impact on Maxwell. It has encouraged him to go out, to meet people, to have fun.”
“As a sensitive soul,” his son’s website says, “he invites us to share his vision of the world and to open up to his universe. The discovery of unknown shapes and colours is at the origin of his art… Different techniques create pictorial records, which sway between fragility and poetry.”
Warren Greenstone, executive director of the Miriam Foundation, lauded the MMFA and its director, Nathalie Bondil, for their vision. “They are giving people like Maxwell a safe environment to grow, to show them what they can do, and to take their rightful place in society.”
Photo: Massiv Art