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Artist Is a Work in Progress : Greg Pelner’s Talent, Not His Autism, Draws Attention

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two things distinguish Greg Pelner, 25, from other talented artists his age.

One is that he already is making money. His sculptures and paintings, shown in galleries in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, N.M., sell briskly at prices ranging up to $600.

The other is that Pelner is autistic. The mysterious developmental disorder was diagnosed when he was 4, and doctors told his parents then that he should be placed in an institution.

But today, Pelner is a prolific and versatile artist. To visit his West Los Angeles studio is to travel into a unique world of imagination and whimsy. The shelves are filled with animal and human clay figures created in an endless variety of shapes and sizes.

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Pelner’s primitive-style pieces have been embraced by collectors as classic examples of “outsider art,” the products of someone not formally trained. His works have been included in exhibits at the Grove Gallery in San Diego and at New York’s Museum of American Folk Art.

Evidence of Pelner’s artistic talent surfaced at age 3 when he began shaping small birds from bits of aluminum foil, according to his parents, Bonnie and Nat Pelner. But even then, there were signs that not all was right.

They got the word in 1972.

“There is no hope,” Bonnie Pelner remembers a doctor telling her when her son’s condition was diagnosed.

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“I don’t believe you,” she replied.

Autism is a disorder in which victims withdraw into a world of their own, and generally seem to be oblivious to people and things around them. It is characterized by behavior that includes extreme sensitivity to sounds and other stimuli, hyperactivity, repetitive motions and inattention to surroundings. It affects 300,000 to 500,000 people in the United States, very few of whom have learned to live independently.

Greg Pelner, however, had a few advantages. First of all, although his condition was complicated by epilepsy and partial blindness, his autism apparently was not as extreme as it is in some children.

“We really don’t understand what autism is,” said Dr. William Kneeland, a professor at UCLA Medical School who has treated Pelner for 15 years for his epilepsy and has participated in the treatment for his autism. “Younger children are often described as having a fantasy world, and because of that they pretty much ignore the real world. I think the difference for Greg is that he does have some grasp of the real world.”

Autism affects people to varying degrees, Kneeland said. “Some individuals have no communication skills at all. But Greg does have those skills. Some are severely mentally retarded. Greg is not.”

Pelner’s second advantage was two parents who were determined to raise him at home.

“When you have kids, there is always the possibility that they will have some sort of disability,” said Nat Pelner, an engineer with Teledyne Electronic Systems in Northridge. “You have to decide what you want to do. Are you going to feel sorry for yourself or are you going to do something about it? We decided we were going to do something.”

Finding little encouragement or support from traditional educational sources, the Pelners discovered a more creative environment at the Wildwood School in Santa Monica, where Greg attended kindergarten through the eighth grade and enrolled in his first art classes.

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A turning point occurred with his enrollment for his high school years at the ERAS (Educational Resources and Services) Center in Culver City, a school and service agency for people with learning disabilities.

The Pelners credit ERAS founder and executive director Barbara Cull for providing strong support and a setting in which their son could thrive.

“Barbara saved his life,” said Bonnie Pelner, who works part time as a research librarian.

ERAS provided programs and instruction geared toward Pelner’s disability, including extensive speech therapy.

“Greg’s autism makes it difficult for him to learn in a non-therapeutic setting,” Cull said. “You have to be able to look past the disability to see the human being who is there and help that person participate in the world.”

After Pelner had been at ERAS for several years, Cull encouraged him to enroll in an evening sculpture class at Beverly Hills High School--partly to develop an artistic talent that was clearly extraordinary, and also to encourage his social interaction in a mainstream setting.

Since graduating from ERAS, he has continued taking art classes as a part-time student at Santa Monica College.

Pelner’s disability remains severe. He cannot live independently; his mother or father must be with him almost constantly. He needs to be shielded from noisy settings or overly stimulating environments.

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There are many highs and lows associated with autism. Pelner has the reading skills of a 12th-grader, for example, but his comprehension is at the third-grade level.

As with most autistic people, language is a struggle for him.

“In Greg’s case, it isn’t that he doesn’t have the words inside of him,” said Cull, who remains in touch with the family. “It’s just that he doesn’t necessarily know how to put them together in sentences to be able to communicate with other people.”

But years of practice and speech therapy have brought Pelner a long way. He doesn’t often initiate a conversation, but he responds appropriately. His speech is clear, if somewhat slow, and his sentences tend to be simple and direct.

One thing he does not do readily, however, is discuss his art. Asked about his creative process, for example, he simply says, “I do things my own way.”

In the past three years, Pelner’s work has attracted a wide audience. He now has an agent, Kerry Burt of Del Mar. And his foil sculptures and pastels, some of which he completes in 15 minutes, are gaining particular attention.

“Good art makes you react, and all of Greg’s work is so spontaneous that it makes you react immediately,” said Leslie Muth, owner of a Santa Fe gallery specializing in contemporary American folk and outsider art. Pelner is one of nine artists whose works are featured in a show that opens there Friday.

One of Pelner’s foil works in the show is a beehive complete with resident bees. “That beehive is so happy and so funny that it just makes you want to laugh,” Muth said.

Equally impressed is Stan Mock, an artist and part-time instructor at Santa Monica College, who has worked with Pelner for seven years.

“Greg is so focused that when you show him how to use a certain tool, he just kind of gets it,” Mock said. “He intuitively knows how to handle the different materials, whether it’s pastels or oil or clay or stone. He just seems to be able to understand what the material is supposed to do.”

ERAS’ Cull says Pelner could not have possibly developed his talents were it not for the patience and love of his parents. “They have tremendous respect for their son as a human being and were open to the possibility that art might be his chosen profession,” she said.

But Cull adds a note of caution.

“I hope that people don’t think every autistic child can be a Greg Pelner, for the simple reason that not all of us are born with the talent to be an artist. People who have autism have varying degrees of talent and intelligence, just like anyone else.”

Nat and Bonnie Pelner say they take things a day at a time.

“We all work as a team,” Nat Pelner said. “Our goal is to help Greg attain whatever he is able to do. We don’t know what it’s going to be like two years from now, but that’s part of the adventure.”


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