This modest, powerful film tells how the art program at Ohio's Bittersweet Farms-- the country's oldest farmstead community for adults with autism-- has tapped hidden talents in the residents, and given them a voice through art. People unable to explain themselves have been liberated. Art has offered a window into their psyches, allowing staff to understand what's troubling the people they serve, and to see, for the first time, who they essentially are.
In the documentary style perfected by Ken Burns, the story is told with the help of interviews with Bittersweet staff. Apt quotations about the value of art from such luminaries as John Updike and Freida Kahlo frame each individual story within the larger tale. Focusing on five longtime residents-- "The Historian," "The Illustrator," and so on-- this professionally made film, produced and directed by Cora and Richard Walsh, the mother and brother of one of the subjects, is beautiful and deeply moving. And it seems utterly fresh.
In the Bittersweet art studios we meet Joe, "The Historian," who draws his life from memory, always through the perspective through which he first saw something-- a bus, for instance, viewed from a window above. Through art Joe ultimately revealed a childhood trauma: his near-drowning at Lake Erie. (Joe's painting of the accident is childlike, haunting, and devastating.) Bronwen, "The Storyteller," expressed her grief about the death of her father through a series of landscapes that at first seemed innocent. Canvas after canvas showed green grass and blue sky. Then one day a brown swathe punctured the serene landscape, plunging deeply below the grass. Above the earth, in primitive handwriting, were the words "Daddy Dirts."
Again and again, the art studio becomes a sanctuary, a therapist's chair. We learn that Conor, "The Illustrator," and the filmmakers' family member, worked through a period of anxiety when his mother was in Ireland. Staff understood the change in his behavior when he began drawing a series of terrified-looking portraits of his mother. Steve, "The Recluse," found safety in a corner of the art room after a cancer battle. And Patra, "The Realist," created a whimsical series of critters that have become the basis for some ceramic designs made and sold at the farm. As Patra's talent emerged, her longtime temper tantrums subsided. She gave her critters a home and named it Twitter Forest, a place, like Bittersweet, where beings live protected from the dangers of the outside world.
Though the film dwells on how adults with autism have expressed their suffering through art, it also shows the inner joys that have been released in the art studios-- through drawing, painting, ceramics, and weaving. Much of the work produced at Bittersweet is gallery-worthy and stunning.
This is an important film. The shame is that it has not been shown in wide release--or on PBS. At a time when adults with autism are entering the adult world-- and a society unprepared to serve their needs-- in greater numbers each year, art is something that works. It is meaningful. It can even help autistic adults earn money through the sale of their work. And you don't necessarily need a farm-based program, big grant funding, or professional artists to achieve the miracle being played out on this Ohio farm. But you do need to listen to what "A Thousand Words" is telling you--whether you have an autistic family member or not.
Linda H. Davis