I am looking up at the house at 53 Cole Avenue, and I don’t recognize the familiar building. Every single architectural-- siding plank, shingle, cornice and pillar -- has been painted in hues of pastel pink, blue, green, bright orange, yellow and red. The house is all the more striking because it stands below a night sky brightly filled with constellations and other atmospheric phenomena resembling fireworks. I have just moved to Williamstown, Mass., and I know for a fact that this house really exists on Cole Avenue. This particular vision of the house, however, exists only as Jessica Park’s painting, The House on 53 Cole Avenue, March 5, 2002. The painting is part of the exhibition, Exploring Nirvana: The Art of Jessica Park, at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ Porter Street Gallery in North Adams, Mass., May 12 to June 30, 2004. This retrospective of Jessy’s work focuses on the artist’s rendition of the world and was the fruit of a semester of study and planning by students in the Museum Studies class of Dr. Anthony Gengarelly, chairman of the Performing and Fine Arts department at M.C.L.A.
To an unsuspecting eye, The House on 53 Cole Avenue, March 5, 2002 displays the skillful ability of an artist to transform what she sees into a fairy-tale-like scene, full of sharp, multicolored details. As I study the exhibition, however, I realize that Park applies the same treatment to all the inanimate objects she paints — houses, monuments, heaters, radio dials or mileage gauges; she paints their exact rendition with a myriad of bold colors and geometric patterns. This obsession with detail and use of vibrant colors, especially in her still lifes, is somewhat reminiscent of the work of certain contemporary mainstream artists, such as the Pop artists and the Surrealists. To her family, however, the paintings display the typical characteristics of an artist who is autistic.
Jessica Hillary Park was born on July 20, 1958, in Williamstown, where she still lives and works as a mail clerk for Williams College. She is the fourth child of Clara and David Park, who were, respectively, professors of English and physics at Williams College. Jessy’s mother documented her daughter’s struggle with autism in two groundbreaking books, The Siege, The First Eight Years of an Autistic Child (1967) and its sequel, Exiting Nirvana, A Daughter’s Life with Autism (2001). Nirvana is the term her mother uses to describe her daughter’s early age state of “enraptured, timeless, self-stimulating nothingness.” In his foreword to Exiting Nirvana, Oliver Sacks, a psychologist and the screenwriter for the movie, The Awakenings, compares this state to the action of dribbling sand through fingers, “with a very real danger that such dribbling will engross an entire lifetime.”
Only under the relentless persistence of her parents did Jessy slowly start to emerge from her state of Nirvana. She did not speak until the age of five. In order to teach Jessy how to speak, Clara Park used images. They looked at picture books together, and Mrs. Park drew shapes that her daughter then reproduced. Within a few months, Jessy could draw, on request, a red heptagon without difficulty. To make Jessy notice the world around her, her mother attributed colors to things. Jessy was quickly able to describe colors with adjectives such as “peacock-green.” Her favorite colors are still purple-black and mint-green. She was able to draw in perspective before she was eight years old.
However, she was unable to answer the questions “Are you having fun?” or “Where