Kinstler Conversations with Simone Johnson and Pamala Rogers

By Nina Wolpow

The following is a conversation with the artist Simone Johnson. Simone is a member of Pure Vision Arts (PVA), Manhattan’s first specialized art studio and exhibition space for artists with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual/developmental disabilities. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nina Wolpow: When did you begin drawing?

Simone Johnson: I took an art class in high school.

NW: What does it feel like for you when you draw?

SJ: I feel calm, comfortable and happy.

NW: Do you remember the first bodega cat drawing you ever did?

SJ: I drew a cat lying on a freezer. On the side of the freezer it said, “Please do not touch the cat.”

NW: Why did you want to draw that cat in particular, do you remember?

SJ: Pamala Rogers [the Director of Pure Vision Arts] gave me the idea of the cats, and Bryant Yarboroguh gave me an idea about bodega cats. 

NW: Do you mostly like to draw with colored pencils?

SJ: First I draw with pencil and eraser, then I color with Prismacolor [pencils]. 

NW: Do you have lots of different colors?

SJ: All of them.

NW: How do you feel about our using your drawing “Bodega Cat with Fruits and Vegetables” on a puzzle? Are you excited?

SJ: Yes.

NW: What do you remember about this particular cat, the one with the fruits and vegetables?

SJ: It was great. And comfortable.

NW: You were comfortable or the cat was comfortable?

SJ: Both!

NW: I know you also like to dance. Does dancing feel similar to or different from making art?

SJ: Similar. 

NW: How so?

SJ: They make me feel happy, calm and comfortable. 

NW: Last question: What is “puzzling” or confusing you about the world today?

SJ: The coronavirus pandemic is confusing me. The coronavirus pandemic is mysterious. I can’t wait until the pandemic is over. 

The following is a conversation with Pamala Rogers, director of Pure Vision Arts (PVA), Manhattan’s first specialized art studio and exhibition space for artists with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual/developmental disabilities. The subject of the interview is the work of Simone Johnson, who is a member of PVA. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nina Wolpow: I was hoping that we could talk a little bit about how you met Simone. 

Pamala Rogers: I was introduced by a friend of hers who brought her to Pure Vision Arts with some of her drawings. Supposedly, Simone had been drawing for years at home, and was looking to have more social outlets, and more friends and activities. I thought she had so much talent and potential and just a wonderful personality.

NW: She really does. Her paintings are so inviting and whimsical. 

PR: Yes, she's hardworking and determined as an artist. Even [when I met her] her work had such a strong sense of design and color and texture and patterning, but she was working with crayons and small paper. Simone is one of those artists that we have whose work seems to speak to a lot of people. Her interest in cats and food and shopping and bodegas—it just seems like a winning combination.  I don’t know if you remember when Lucy Sparrow’s exhibition Felt Bodega was [in Chelsea]. We made a couple of trips there. Simone went and she saw the felt bodega cat, and she became very interested in this idea that cats are in stores and that cats are in bodegas, and that triggered the first one. Then she found out about @bodegacatsofinstagram, and we started taking her to field trip so that she could see the actual cats in the bodega store and look at the products. It’s funny how that little piece of that one field trip led to that inspiration.

NW: How did you come to be involved with Pure Vision Arts?

PR: Pure Vision Arts is actually an initiative of the Shield Institute, which is a much larger not-for-profit human service organization. I started the art program at the Shield Institute, and then over the years, it grew and grew and expanded into Pure Vision Arts. Pure Vision Arts was actually the first studio and gallery for people with Autism and other neurodevelopmental challenges in New York.

NW: Do artists tend to find PVA or do you more often go out into the community looking?

PR: It's funny—we often get calls from their parents, or a friend of theirs or a family member, maybe a brother or sister. We often get calls after we've been at the Outsider Art Fair, or we've had a major exhibition, or a publication or a film or something on television has come out about us. Then we get calls from people saying, you know, “I have a brother, a sister, a relative — they love art. They've been making art their whole lives at home as a hobby. And we heard about your program, and we think it might be a good fit for them.” That's how a lot of people find us. Sometimes I'll get a call from a social worker, or even a psychologist that says, “I have a client and they're always showing me their drawings and they're so interested in art. And I was looking for a program for them and you're the only program that I found in the city like this.” 

NW: That must feel so amazing, to find exactly what they were looking for. 

PR: It's really a like-minded community of artists—they show and share and they mentor each other. And they’re friends. We also have a lot of parties and events. We socialize a lot and go to museums and galleries. It’s a great community of people who were doing this on their own before, but now they have a lot of support. And they're really thriving.

NW: Has Covid made that difficult? 

PR:  It really has changed the picture. We now have an onsite program for people that are vaccinated,  and we have a “Home Is Where the Art Is” program, a virtual program. We're really fortunate that we've been able to keep the program going and running despite Covid. 

NW: That must be really helpful for these artists.

PR: It really is. We send them art supplies, and we get on Zoom. We talk, we share, they show their work that they're making at home. Some of them have studios and art spaces designated at home so they can work. They get to talk with their friends. It really helps with the isolation and being cut off. They have their art to keep them going and inspired — something to do that is a great activity, that’s soothing and relaxing, and they’re also continuing to build their bodies of work.

NW: Simone was telling me that she has all the Prismacolor colors. I was very envious. 

PR: She has one of the deluxe sets — the giant 500 pencil box. I think she's really enamored with the choices of colors. There is something magical about those Prismacolors. They're so rich and lustrous and she uses them so boldly. 

NW: When I first saw her work, I thought a lot of it was painted. She’s really able to achieve that wide spectrum of color. 

PR: They're so saturated. She has such a great sense of color design and texture and patterning. Her work is just so whimsical and humorous.

NW: You mentioned the Outsider Art Fair. How do you feel about certain artists being characterized as outsiders? I know some artists don't love that designation, and some feel very allied with it. I’m curious about your thoughts.

PR: Pure Vision Arts transcends so many boundaries. Some of the work there is considered folk art. We’ve been really embraced by the folk art community. And we’ve also really been embraced by the outsider art community. We have a booth at the Outside Art Fair every year, and we've made so many connections and sales. But we like the term “self-taught” better. All of our artists are self-taught. Our artists have already been outsiders for so long. We're trying to help them be more insiders. So we don’t love the term. Some of our artists really, too, their art is just as contemporary and fresh as anything in the contemporary art world today. All l those boundaries, I think, are becoming more and more blurry, and outsider art is becoming so popular now. We try to just participate and increase the visibility of our artists in whatever way we can. We’re also in a lot of private collections and corporate collections and museum collections.

NW: So these artists are really finding a platform, via their association with Pure Vision Arts. That's great.

PR: We really like to help increase the visibility of the work and also celebrate neurodiversity — showcase the amazing work that is being created and help the public learn more, and decrease negative stereotypes and misunderstandings about people with autism and disabilities through the art. That’s our social mission and how we like community building.

NW: Do you have artists representing the entire autism spectrum?

PR: We have such diversity at Pure Vision Arts. In addition to artists with autism, we also have artists with other developmental disabilities like cerebral palsy and people with Down syndrome. We work with the full spectrum. We have people that are almost nonverbal and communicate primarily through the art. And then people that are Asperger's, savant, genius-level, just amazing. And we embrace it all. Some of the work is more crude, more primitive, like what would be called Art Brut, and some of it is incredibly sophisticated and mindblowingly original. Some of them just have this natural gift. We like to work with it all. Encourage it all.

NW: It's really incredible how much more richly Simone is able to express herself via her art, than in a conversation.

PR: That’s the case with many of our artists. Many of them did not do well in school. Many of them did not have a very good sense of communication or language. Some of them actually got negative messages for their work. I had one parent tell me, “My daughter, every report card said she doodled all day and daydreamed and looked out the window. Nobody thought of her drawings as something special. And now I know they really are amazing.” So some of the work was not appreciated, or it was like, “Oh, you're too old for that,” or “Put that away. We're not doing that now.” When really they were artists. We provide this platform for them to develop these skills and expand and have good materials. Some people would come to us with little scraps of paper with drawings on them, or they were just working with whatever they could find. We provide them with better quality materials and professional framing. It's hard enough being an artist without a disability—but imagine, if you have a disability, too, and you need studio space, and you need supplies, and you need somebody else to put your work in context with galleries and collectors, and curators and gallerists. We provide the whole full service

NW: We’re so lucky to have an organization like this in the city. You think about all the artists that could have been throughout the years, before we had this kind of languaging and understanding. And it’s almost heartbreaking. 

PR: We like to take it a step further and say not only do we celebrate neurodiversity, but we think our artists fit in a larger historical context. I call it the Savant Garde. It’s not just what we think — this is actually researched and published now. There are many people possibly on the spectrum throughout history in the arts and sciences that made a major contribution, but weren't officially diagnosed. Mozart makes that list and so does Newton. And so does Steve Jobs. And so does Andy Warhol. They all fit the diagnostic criteria, in this savant way, and that kind of turns it on its head. We see it from a different perspective, like there's a culture of autism that’s maybe existed that we just hadn't been aware of, because we didn’t have the language. But these people have really changed history —  people with this ability to hyperfocus and create something and dive deep into something to make new discoveries.