Michael TollesonI have Aspergers and I am an artistic savant, which accounts for my ability to paint proficiently and effectively without formal training. June 2013 marked two years of actively painting and creating 350 gallery worthy paintings (no mistakes including my first painting). With each new painting, I continue to evolve, develop my own style and progress because of an aptitude that I attribute to my Aspergers. While I can paint as an artistic savant, I have other deficits such as face blindness (inability to remember faces if they are “out of location context” or if clothing or hairstyle has significantly changed). I can do complex math in my head, but cannot fill out forms, reports, schedules, or balance a checkbook. Aspergers has for me its pluses and minuses… such as I have the tendency to be very, very, very verbal (I talk a lot).

My art travels between two paths; one more realistic and the other more abstract and soul based. The opportunity to create for BEEN THERE DONE THAT TRY THIS presented itself at a time that I was painting with my impressionistic loose style which was typical for me at the time. My typical subjects were not as emotional as the subjects and stress points I tackled for the book. With each chapter’s title, I had to reach deep within myself and explore how I personally felt when I experienced that stress points. Then I asked myself how the stress points would look if I created on canvas and thus put in a visual context the feeling within these subjects. When I create, I paint feelings so the ability to create a visual depended on how deeply I felt the stress point in my soul. Because of the time I took to really feel each subject, I was able to explore and create visual definitions for the feelings that sometimes are hidden within ourselves or that we refuse to discuss. For this opportunity to create unique and cohesive paintings, I will be thankful for the rest of my life.

When I examine my ability to paint; every stroke is instinctual since I have no training, and I rely on the use of the huge amount of stored information my Aspergers mind has observed and retained. Each painting I create, regardless of size, is painted in less than 1 hour. When photographed during the process of creating a finished piece of artwork, my hand appears as a blur due to the movement of my hand and quickness of the application of paint to the canvas. This is the genius of a savant mind with Aspergers. In many ways I feel possessed during the actual act of painting, and I am reluctant to take credit for the finished work resting on the easel when I am done. The finished outcome is always a surprise to me.

My actual process is very interesting. The use of a reference photo that I lay beside my easel, in many ways dictates what my autistic mind will perceive as the approach for the finished artwork. For each painting that was done for this book, I researched photo after photo of subject matter that had “feelings” of the stress point I was attempting. Each reference photo had to speak to me and I must have an emotional connection to the subject, colors, of design placement of the photo. The actual process toward the finished piece can go in many directions, but ultimately my subconscious mind will take the photo and transform it into my own version of the subject in the photo. Imagine taking a simple photo and punching up the colors on adrenaline, and then loosely using the subjects and placement to create a finished piece of art. That is what happens in my subconscious mind, so that the photographic elements or colors may be recognizable in the finished artwork, but nothing actually appears copied from the original.

My hand, brush and palette knife movements are quick and almost manic, although the application of the paint is somehow calculated, it may appear random on the canvas. Color and emotions pour from the finished canvas to draw a viewer deeply into the implied “story” of the art. Ultimately, I hope the paint on the canvas provides a doorway into understanding a world within autism and will ultimately capture my desire to touch another receptive soul.


Michael Tolleson lives in Seattle, Washington with his artist partner, Jack Carl Anderson, who is also has Aspergers. Together they have an art gallery which displays artwork from about forty artists with challenges including autism, and they also have an autistic art mentoring art center that provides one on one instruction for art students on the autism spectrum.