BHSU art student shares autism experience in national exhibition

Author: BHSU Communications/Thursday, September 25, 2014/Categories: 2014


           Ethan Engel, an art and graphic design communications major from Winner, had his artwork "Overcast" selected to be part of the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, a national exhibit that showcases 15 young artists with disabilities at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Engel&rsquos artwork shows his journey with autism.


           Ethan Engel, an art and graphic design communications major from Winner, explains his series of artwork that shows his journey with autism. One of the four pieces, "Overcast," was selected to be a part of the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, a national exhibition that showcases 15 young artists with disabilities at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Ethan Engel has a story to tell.

His selection as an emerging young artist gives him the opportunity to tell his story nationwide.  

Engel, an art and graphic design communications major from Winner, was one of 15 young artists whose work was selected for the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program. The VSA Emerging Young Artists Program is a national exhibition that provides young artists ages 16 to 25 the opportunity to display their work. Engel&rsquos submission, "Overcast," earned an Award of Excellence in the program.

"Overcast" is part of a series that shows Engel&rsquos struggle with Asperger&rsquos, a form of high functioning autism that creates difficulties in social interaction, motor development and communication.

Engel&rsquos artwork is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution&rsquos Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C. The exhibit will be on display at the Smithsonian Institution until Jan. 5, 2015. It then will travel around the United States for one year. Engel received a $2,000 cash prize and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. this month. In addition, Engel is attending a professional development workshop where he will explore skills needed for a career in the visual arts.

"This is the most significant, important representation any student has had in the history of our program on such a national level on such a global topic," said Dave Wilson, professor of art at BHSU. "This is huge. You&rsquore showing at the most prestigious museum in the country."

The 2014 theme is The Journey. Artists created pieces that represented the journey with their disability.

"I took it as how you live with your disability in your everyday life," Engel said. "I decided to do something that talks about my past by expressing a journal that shows my internal conflicts and struggles of understanding how my autism functions."

Engel imprinted words from his journal on a canvas to create "Overcast." While working on his project with Wilson over the summer, the two decided to try holding the journal image backwards. The words were harder to read in reverse, which Engel said correlated to how it was hard for him to function with autism at times.

Engel used a wood burning tool kit to burn the lettering into the canvas. He chose a natural cotton fabric that resembled the color of his skin. The burnt lettering and texture was made to look like old scars.   

"Ethan told me, if the viewer wants to know my story, they have to struggle with the artwork, too," Wilson said.

"I want people to try and understand what autism is all about," Engel said. "How I deal with situations, my emotions. When you&rsquore hearing me talk I do have that processing issue," Engel said. "That&rsquos why I wanted to play with the viewer a bit and get them interacted and try to connect with how the story goes."

The burned lettering symbolizes Engel&rsquos past and how he was bullied because of his disability.

Wilson said as Engel prepares for graduation in the spring, the VSA honor will help further his career.


"In four years what Ethan has done is amazing. I think back to when I first met Ethan," Wilson said. "Autism had Ethan when he came to BHSU. Now Ethan has autism and he is using it as a tool to make his life better."

Engel, who is also the president of the BHSU Art Club, said his artistic talent stemmed from his grandmother.

"She started having me paint ceramics because that was her favorite hobby," Engel said. "Throughout my academics, yeah I struggle, big time. English is not my best subject and even speech when I have trouble speaking and with grammar. Art helped me with some of my grades with creativity."

When Engel enrolled at BHSU he decided to try out some art classes.

"That&rsquos when it hit. I knew that this was the perfect choice for me," he said. "That&rsquos when I increased my social skills more."

Engel currently has four pieces of artwork in his new series. The other pieces in the collection showcase how he first reacted to being diagnosed with autism to how he has progressed since his diagnosis as a child. He said, though, there will be more.

"Hopefully by the end of the semester I will have a dozen," Engel said. "I have more stories to tell."
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