November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Jeff Katz / Memoir

 

“Really, It Was a Miracle”

Autistic & Artistic

By Jeff Katz

To walk into the Leonard Tourne Gallery around 2:30 on Thursday, June 7, was both real and fantasy, an in-between world where my wife Karen constantly said “pinch me.” On the walls were the work of Nate Katz, artist. It was impossible to process. Most artists go a lifetime without a New York opening.

It’s impossible to express in less than book form the journey we’ve taken. Nate is our oldest child, nearing 22 years old. When he was three-and-a-half years old he was diagnosed with hyperlexia, a form of autism marked by precocious reading skills but limited comprehension. Nate’s diagnosis put a name on our worries and gave Karen and me something to work with, peeling away the mystery of this son of ours who was consumed by useless language, a non-stop stream of movie dialogue, snippets from his favorite books, and random sounds. Until that moment, we hadn’t known how to connect with this boy, who lived in his own private place, like Alice’s caterpillar surrounded by words, words made not of smoke, quick to evaporate, but a solid wall of words blocking our way. What would become of our Natey?

Flash forward to 2012. Nate is both a college graduate, having gained his Associate’s Degree from SUNY-Cobleskill in May after majoring in Graphic Design. He is talkative, though not skilled in conversation, but most certainly involved in our world. And he’s got real talent that comes out in the most interesting ways. One of his obsessions is drawing Illinois strip malls, the shopping malls he loves and has missed ever since we relocated from the Chicago suburbs to Cooperstown in June of 2003, to begin a different life, a life where I could give up my 20-year career in options trading and find greater fulfillment by devoting much of my time to Nate, helping him, despite his frequent opposition, to succeed in school and advocate for him wherever, and whenever, I could.

Some of Nate's strip malls.

Nate’s strip malls drawings, done in colored pencil and faux-laminated with Scotch tape, caught the eye of one of my pals, Doug Miller. Doug is a partner in a fossil digging enterprise, Green River Stone Company, and has an artistic eye. He marveled at Nate’s work and was an immediate fan and collector. Doug thought the gallery he’s associated with through his fossils, the aforementioned Leonard Tourne Gallery, might be interested in Nate’s work. With much hesitation, Nate allowed Doug to take a few pieces down to New York. Before we knew it, the wheels were in motion, an opening date was selected and Doug and Karen were experimenting with custom cut Plexiglass frames. Nate’s pieces, like Nate himself, are hard to fit into prepackaged sizes and store bought frames were not an option. His work ranges from shopping center signboards drawn on magazine subscription cards, to 11 foot long monster pieces that, like a panoramic photo of a high school senior trip that takes so long to shoot that some people end up in the picture twice, start and end at the same place. That’s how we found ourselves on Broome St., smack dab in SoHo, on a sweltering June afternoon.

Nate walked into the room, checking out his work with great pride and attention. We stood amazed, jaws dropping as we met Javier, the gallery owner, and his staff. Their reaction gave it the imprimatur we need: this is really art, not a favor to a friend or charity case. They see the value in Nate’s art and, as a result, so do we. It would remain to be seen whether others would.

The opening started at 5, and after cruising around the galleries and music stores in the area, we were back at the gallery, waiting for the hoped for crowd. Although we had told Nate that, as the artist, he needed to answer questions and not growl (as he does with us), he retreated up the narrow staircase, apart from the main room. He did come down once things got rolling.

Among the first to show were my cousins, who found it all unbelievable. They know Nate, and have seen his work, but in that setting, with those prices, it was all hard to process. My cousin Alan trekked upstairs to see Nate, who had yet to come down. He said how proud he was of Nate, Nate said thanks, and it was all very normal, very familiar, until Alan gave Nate a peck on the cheek.

“Whoa,” said Nate. Even though he knows Alan, Nate never “really” knows most people and, at the moment of impact, probably wondered, “Who is this person giving me a kiss?”

Gale Gand, a dear friend for many years, and a celebrity chef, flew in from Chicago for the opening and brought a couple of friends with her. Her friends made history: they were the first buyers of an original Nate drawing of a Hilton Garden Inn Plaza.

When we saw that Javier was processing the sale, and putting a red dot on the label, there was a buzz that could be felt throughout the room. These folks didn’t know Nate, but something in the work struck home. The female of the couple often stayed at these Hiltons when she travelled. The picture meant something to her.

And that’s what is valid in Nate’s art. He sees these strip malls that we all scorn and dismiss as beautiful things, deserving of respect, without a hint of irony. There’s beauty there. Most of the rich and famous people in the country didn’t start out that way, and have fond memories of a family trip to a Hilton, or the first time they visited a Barnes & Noble Superstore, or a high school dinner at Ruby Tuesday’s. These places have value in our memories and Nate taps into that, unknowingly.

I think it’s unknowing. It’s hard to truly grasp what’s going on in his mind, but his art lends itself to criticism. Why does he see such joy in these places? Why is he obsessed? His details are fascinating. In some pictures he’s got little men, ant-like black silhouettes, who are doing work on ladders, putting up signs. He has notes to himself, or the viewer (though I’m not sure these works are made with a viewer in mind) that the five yellow-facaded stores are the former outline of a now defunct K-Mart location.

He also has timelines reminiscent of Donovan’s “There is a Mountain.” In these, Nate lays out the evolution of a site, from car dealership to vacant lot to new Wal-Mart. The things we see as permanent he knows are transient, and when laid out step by step, are somewhat sad and touching. All the hopes of a business dashed, then forgotten.

The room began filling up. More friends came in from Chicago and New York, some strangers, some gallery invitees. Erin Cox, my agent, was there, as were many college pals.

Nate was now amongst the crowd, checking in with me as the night went on, wondering if he had money. Nate finally bought into the whole “selling his art” theme once I told him he could use the money he made to fix his bathroom. Bathrooms are another obsession of his. I told him yes, not to worry, and pictures began to sell. Rick, a dear Chicago friend, bought a huge drawing, one of my favorites from Vernon Hills that was featured on the postcard mailing. Gale bought one, and so did a few others.

It’s one thing for friends to show up. It’s another for them to buy. Doug, who curated the show, explained to me that it’s a leap for people to buy art, even when they know you. Watching Javier walk the room, running credit cards through his handheld, was beyond belief, but not more so than Nate’s behavior.

Margrethe Lauber, Nate’s professor/adviser/guru, had told us that Nate should wear his “C boy” shirt. We are working on a business called “Alpha Folks,” which will produce and sell t-shirts and other products based on Nate’s original designs. These designs create character faces out of a single letter. Though still in its inception, the gallery opening was a great chance to market and show off the idea. I’d told Nate to have a picture of all his work on his iPad, ready to show. He dutifully saved aMission of Complexblog post with all the faces and he presented them throughout the night. People would come up to me commenting on how great they were and which ones they wanted to buy.

So there was Nate Katz, former uncommunicative autistic boy, showing his work to friends and family, some he knew, some he didn’t, and some he did know but couldn’t place. That led to one of my favorite moments.

Paul, another college friend, came in and I brought him to Nate.

“Nate, do you remember my friend Paul? We went out to eat once.”

“That was the Old Town Bar.”

“No Nate, that was with Paul Lukas,” I said. Paul L., UniWatch founder and ESPN.com columnist, was in attendance. “It was a Mexican restaurant.”

“Baby Bo’s?”

“No Nate, that was with Jason and Bethany,” my cousins, who were also there. “It was in Albany.”

“El Loco?”

That was it. I loved that Nate categorized everyone based on where we shared a meal.

Nate has a hard time socializing, but Karen and I witnessed something that was, if possible, more shocking than the gallery show itself. At one point, Nate began taking people by the arm and leading them to works of art, schmoozing and trying to sell. I wondered if his input made it easier or harder to lock down a deal. I think easier. At one point I’m sure I heard him say, “Oh, here’s a picture you might like.” At least that’s what I want to believe he said.

By the end of the night, I had a conversation with one of the gallery patrons, who told me that, as a mother of two, her eyes grew watery seeing Nate’s work. She wants to carry his “Alpha Folks” shirts when they are ready, as the gallery is looking at products to sell. How about that? Not only a show, but a potential SoHo outlet for his design work. That’s where are sights are set, getting “Alpha Folks” off the ground. Since the show ended, Nate has created a total of 104 individual works and we seem to be on our way. Just another in a series of unbelievable events.

There was a transformation that took place night, a change sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle. Look at this face:

Nate: Shining with success

That is not an expression we’re used to seeing, pleasure mixed with joy and pride. It’s the best picture of Nate I’ve ever seen, natural, real, beautiful. He’s on his way to success. We all feel it deeply. It’s happening already.

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About the author:

Jeff Katz is the music editor of Ragazine.CC, mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y., and blogs at http://missionofcomplex.wordpress.com/. You can read more about him in “About Us.”