Armando Saltiel's parents used to take him skiing in Aspen, Colo., but the altitude became too much for his fragile lungs. He rode horses, too, but his severe scoliosis made that intolerable.
Born with a genetic brain abnormality that limits his communication to eye movements, "Mandi" was becoming more withdrawn. His parents feared he was shutting down completely. So they settled on a curious activity for their son, largely because they could think of almost nothing else for him.
They let him make art.
It seems like a ridiculous concept — a young man who can barely move his head creating art. But the Saltiels saw what happened when their son started working with artist Julie Ludwick, and it was transformative.
Now, a partnership is developing, and this activity Saltiel came to almost as a last resort has become a salvation, potentially a career. As impossible as it sounds, Mandi Saltiel is an artist.
"It's like he's trapped in his body because he's nonverbal and he's so physically (challenged)," said his mother, Lori Saltiel. "Everyone wants a purpose. He's expressing himself. He's telling us something he has within him that he can't verbalize."
Saltiel, 21, of Libertyville, expresses those thoughts through painstaking sessions with Ludwick, an art therapist who began working with him in 2008 at Equestrian Connection, a therapeutic horseback riding center in Lake Forest., after riding ended.
One of their earliest pieces is a tangle of jagged blue and green marks on paper.
The two refined their communication. Ludwick soon determined that Saltiel wanted to tear colored paper, cut photos and glue both on his pieces. Then they started gluing objects, including beads, bingo chips, feathers, flowers, polished stones, seashells and bottle caps, to the surface.
Saltiel's art work grew. "Keep On Truckin'," depicting the landscape of his perilous life through the use of paint, strips of photographs, seashells, polished stones and a picture of an SUV, is 5 feet wide and nearly 2 feet high. "My Garden of Possibilities," meant to convey his potential, is almost the same size.
But "Lori's Oasis" may answer the obvious question of who really is creating this art — Ludwick, who has a master's in art therapy, or the severely debilitated young man in the wheelchair?
"Lori's Oasis," which represents Lori Saltiel's interests, shows photos of blue and yellow furniture and a couch overflowing with pillows — all of which are in family's living room. Saltiel and Ludwick completed the piece before Ludwick had seen the Saltiels' home.
"If this wasn't his work," Lori Saltiel said, "I wouldn't pay for these sessions," which are $60 an hour. She pointed to "Keep On Truckin'." "This is the stuff he went through. If this wasn't his, I wouldn't have paid $650 to frame it. It would have been rolled up and put away."
Ludwick, 28, describes the art-making as "communicating through a very complicated version of 20 Questions. Obviously, there's a part of me in these," she added, "just like anybody who is an art instructor."
But seeing Ludwick and Saltiel work underscores her role as art conduit.
Saltiel applies all the paint in his pieces. Ludwick places a wrist wrap on his right hand, slips a paintbrush into it, then supports the hand or elbow. He chooses a color and slides the brush on the surface.
When Ludwick works on a piece, she constantly checks and double-checks with Saltiel on selection and placement of colors and objects. She cheers him and suggests what each object, color or position may mean to him.
Saltiel communicates "yes" by rolling his eyes toward the top of his head and "no" by moving his gaze to the right. The partners work two hours a week and can take six months to complete a piece.
Wearing an apron at a table in the sunroom of the Saltiels' spacious home one afternoon, Saltiel painted several diagonal arcs of pink, blue and purple on a mat board.
"I love it," Ludwick said of his painting. He goofed around by dabbing Ludwick's chin with purple.
He also convulsed in excitement, which brought his mother to the room to suction his mouth. Later, he looked listless, which prompted Ludwick to check his oxygen level.
After a few minutes, he conveyed he was finished painting for the time being.
"Do you want me to show you what objects I have?" she asked.
Another upward roll of the eyes. Ludwick displayed plastic cups and bags of bingo chips, flowers, polished rocks and beads, grouped by color, and Saltiel moved his hand closer the brown beads.
"These guys?" she asked. Saltiel rolled his eyes.
Saltiel suffers from a severe form of polymicrogyria, in which the brain develops too many ridges and folds before birth. Many complications, from respiratory issues to muscle weakness, result. Some days, it's a struggle to breathe. Still, he pushes himself to make art, his family said.
A Maryland native, Ludwick was a fine arts major at Carnegie Mellon University who, inspired by her mother — an occupational therapist — graduated with a degree in fine arts and psychology. She received her master's at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Among the 28 individuals she works with, Saltiel stands out for being "passionate about his art-making to a degree that he wants to pursue it long term," Ludwick said. And he's more confident in communicating, she said.
"It's not per se his self-confidence," Ludwick said, "but rather his willingness and desire to determine his own path now that is so profound. His journey with art-making has opened up a world of complex communication."
They have completed about 10 pieces, several written explanations of the works' meanings and an artist's statement.
"Before I was born," reads his artist's statement, composed with Ludwick, "I got sick in my mom's tummy." He goes on that his art is "an integral part of my communication," and that he is "touching a greater audience. … My process creates artwork that is healing, for me and the viewer."
The efforts are part of his plan to be a professional artist with a solo exhibition. Saltiel has already displayed pieces at Equestrian Connection and a small gallery at the Lake Bluff train station. One of his pieces hangs in a Libertyville store, Tropik Sun Fruit & Nut.
But that's an ambitious goal for someone whose health is so precarious; someone who endured 19 surgeries by the time he was 5 years old; someone whose body is collapsing on him.
It may not matter whether Saltiel reaches that objective. His family has noticed that he's communicating better, he's more confident in his decisions. He has matured, they said.
"He's proud of himself," his father, Armando, said. "He has something to be proud of."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times