Brain Pickings

Children and Established Artists Draw Autism


What the spectrum of difference has to do with 12th-century demons and Google Earth.

Autism is one of the greatest modern mysteries of cognitive science, a highly faceted condition that remains largely misunderstood. We’ve previously explored several notable autistic outliers — British savant Stephen Wiltshire, who draws remarkable 3D panoramas of cities from memory; animal scientist Temple Grandin, who is equally well-known for her innovations in livestock herding and her autism advocacy; and autistic savant Daniel Tammet, who was able to learn Icelandic in a week, among other remarkable feats of memory. But what is the actual experience of living with autism in a deep felt sense, beyond the social stereotypes and headline-worthy superskills?

Drawing Autism, a celebration of the artistry and self-expression found in artwork by people diagnosed with autism, explores just that.

The stunning volume, with an introduction by Grandin herself, features works by more 50 international contributors, from children to established artists, that illustrate the rich multiplicity of the condition — which we hesitate to call a “disorder” as we subscribe to the different, not lesser view of autism — and the subjective experience of each autistic individual. Thanks to Will of 50 Watts for the wonderful images.

Felix: Imaginary City Map, Age 11

Who are some artists that you like?

None. I study road maps and atlases in detail and generally I scroll the full track of our trips on Google Earth.

Eleni Michael, Dancing with the Dog, 1995

Josh Peddle, Changing Seasons, 2006 (at age 12)

Vehdas Rangan: A. (India)

David Barth, Vogels (Dutch for 'birds'), 2008 (at age 10)

Emily L. Williams, Leap Years

Wil C. Kerner, Pals (collage), age 12

Wil’s grandmother explains:

The key in understanding Pals is the brown rimmed off-white donkey ear. Four facial expressions depict the bad boys turning into donkeys in the movie Pinocchio: purple-faced Pinocchio is stunned by his new ear and considering what to do; it’s too late for the horrified yellow face; the green trapezoid is oblivious to his pending fate; the blue head is looking away hoping he’s not included.”

Eric Chen, Mirror Mind poster 3, 2005

Jessica Park: The Mark Twain House with the Diamond Eclipse and Venus, 1999

Drawing Autism comes from Mark Batty Publisher — one of our favorite independent voices at the intersection of visual art and thoughtful cultural commentary, whom you may recall from The Unruly Alphabet, Drainspotting, Pioneers of Spanish Graphic Design, and Noma Bar’s fantastic Negative Space illustrations.

Images via 50 Watts

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Lawrence Lessig on the Free Access Movement


Open access to knowledge, a business model for science, and the value of “uncool” innovation.

Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig is easily the most important voice in intellectual property today, whose work — including founding Creative Commons — has done for remix culture what Al Gore’s did for climate change. In this animated excerpt from a lecture he gave in Geneva last week, Lessig introduces the Science Commons project and makes a compelling case for universal access to knowledge through new information architecture that supports its recombination and reconfiguration, advocating for what he calls “the free access movement.”

Ultimately, he argues — and we wholeheartedly agree — that encouraging exclusivity of access is inconsistent with the ethics of our world, the sort of paradigm that lets knowledge wither in the hands of the privileged.

We need to recognize in the academy, I think, an ethical obligation [...] An ethical obligation which is at the core of our mission. Our mission is universal access to knowledge—not American university access to knowledge, but universal access to knowledge in every part of the globe.

We don’t need, for our work, exclusivity; and we shouldn’t practice, with our work, exclusivity. And we should name those who do, wrong. Those who do are inconsistent with the ethic of our work.” ~ Lawrence Lessig

See the full 50-minute talk below:

Archiving is not enough. Because what it does is leave these right out there, and by leaving these rights out there, it encourages this architecture of closed access. It encourages models of access that block access to the non-elite around the world. And it discourages unplanned, unanticipated and ‘uncool’ innovation — the sort of thing publishers would’ve said of Google Books.” ~ Lawrence Lessig

More than six years later, Lessig’s Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity remains an absolute must-read. Unlike most books, whose cultural relevance tends to wane with time, this is a cultural essential that’s only increasingly relevant as we grapple with new facets of what constitutes creative labor.

[UPDATE: Per appropriate albeit abrasive reader comment below, a reminder that Free Culture is also available as a free downloadable PDF if you can stomach the reading experience that entails.]

HT @matthiasrascher

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Mabel Pike: Portrait of a 91-Year-Old Moccasin Maker


What ancient beadwork has to do with the blessings of the digital age.

91-year-old Tlingit Native elder Mabel Pike learned beading when she was six and her great-grandmother taught her how to sew moccasins in the 1920s. In 1926, after their village in Douglas, Alaska burned down, Mabel’s parents moved the family to Juneau, where Mabel and her sisters began making and selling handcrafted Native wares. Mabel eventually became a Tlingit master artist, going on to teach beadwork at Stanford and pass on the traditions of her clan’s culture.

In this lovely video portrait, part of Etsy’s Handmade Portraits series, Mabel talks about the traditional patterns of her culture, her deep passion for her craft and everything it stands for, and her hate for the word “abstract.” It exudes the same kind of bittersweet poeticism you might recall from these 7 short documentaries about dying crafts, but it’s also lined with Mabel’s steady, quiet optimism.

When I finish a pair of moccasins, I sure hate to part with them. I’m not in this for money-making. I do my sewing because that’s my life, it’s always been my life, from the day I was six years old.” ~ Mabel Pike

I just lose myself in my sewing. I don’t know how to describe it. You know, when I start beading, it’s like I’m so absorbed in what I’m doing, I forget everything. I’m sewing, and I’m creating, and I’m designing. And I just don’t know how to describe it. I just lose myself in it.” ~ Mabel Pike

The way Mabel describes her work — this state of total engagement, of complete immersion — encapsulates the state renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined as “flow,” the true mark of creativity in action.

For your daily pause moment: It’s utterly remarkable that we live in an age when online platforms like Vimeo and Etsy and Twitter and WordPress are allowing us to not only learn about the fascinating cultural heritage of ancient traditions, but to also actively support these indigenous artists in ways that would’ve never been possible a mere decade ago.

To support Mabel’s work and that of other indigenous artists, do visit Alaksa Native Arts Foundation’s online shop.

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