Story last updated at 4:11 p.m. Thursday, July 25, 2002

Unique perspective colors artist's work

Point of hue

by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: entertainment
"Skateboard Boy," illustrates Erik Behnke's unusual manipulation of dimension found in many of his works. The artist, who has Down syndrome, is holding his first Homer show at Latitude 59 during July and August  
At the Homer Street Fair on Saturday, passers-by halted in interest at a booth lined with colorful, minimalist drawings of sports figures and animals.

They stared at the artwork's eye-catching perspectives, which exaggerate certain features of each work's subject, like the paws of a tiger or the legs of a skier.

All the while, artist Erik Behnke, who has Down syndrome, sat quietly drawing, filling each work with meticulously placed color.

Years ago, Behnke's mother, Linda Thompson, said doctors saw her son's perfectionist tendencies as an indication he would do well folding laundry. It wasn't the career Thompson saw her son in.

Thompson said Behnke always had a passion for tracing and coloring. One day, when he was in his 20s, Thompson took away the tracing paper and asked her son to draw a picture out of memory. The result, a red-winged eagle, was instantly impressive.

"The first one he drew looked nothing like the eagle (in the picture)," Thompson said. "It had its own shape and its own color."

Behnke's art now shows in galleries around the state, as well as locally at Ptarmigan Arts and the Art Shop Gallery. A series of eight of Behnke's works were used as the images in the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games poster.

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Erik Behnke works on a drawing at the Homer Street Fair last weekend.  
Thompson said Behnke has a particular propensity toward images in motion, like those of an athlete in action. While the resulting figures are often distorted from their original form, Behnke's unusual perspective captures the action in an uniquely abstract way.

"He distorts and exaggerates and turns things around," Thompson said. "My favorites are when he gets really abstract. They are so neat. They are way out there."

Another element to Behnke's works, an element that is entirely of his creation, is the webbed background of his drawings, which contrasts in its organized quality with the free-flowing images in the forefront.

Thompson said Behnke is steadfastly dedicated to his artistic medium, a refillable watercolor pen that allows him the precision he desires.

"Anything else is too inexact," Thompson said. "He leaves very little air. It's very precise, not sloppy at all."

Thompson, who has done quite a bit of research into artists with Down syndrome since discovering Behnke's talents, and is basing her graduate thesis on the subject, said from her findings, her son's art is unique. Other artists with disabilities similar to Behnke's weave, and one man in Germany drew religious images, but few focus on the use of color as Behnke does.

However, Thompson said, she is convinced that part of the reason few artists with Down syndrome are currently recognized may be that their talents are simply missed.

photo: entertainment
"Every single person has the ability to be a savant," she said. "Erik always did the art, I just didn't recognize what was there."

Since moving to Homer several years ago, Thompson said her son has been embraced by the art community. Though he speaks in a voice barely above a whisper, he attends First Friday events and knows many of the other artists in town.

"The artists treat him with such respect," she said. "Those are his friends. He gets such a joy out of seeing other artists that he knows."

Though Behnke's work has been on display in Homer for several years, his first complete show is now hanging at Latitude 59 through August. Behnke will be on hand for next month's First Friday opening on Aug. 2.