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Following the Lead of My Artist Son With Down Syndrome

“I am going to paint with a baseball bat.”

“OK.”

“I am going to paint with baseballs.”

“OK.”

I need a T-ball set.”

“Um, what?”

Charlie, my 29-year old son who is a working abstract artist, was contacted this past winter to paint a triptych for the Texas Rangers’ new home at Globe Life Field. Right away he had a plan: a baseball bat, baseballs, a kids T-ball set with softballs and lots of red, white and blue paint.

While the baseball bat and baseballs didn’t concern me, the idea of a T-ball set made me nervous. Envisioning Charlie whacking baseballs at delicate and expensive art canvases, not to mention the mess involved with paint-covered balls flying all around his studio, was totally disconcerting, to say the least.

To be fair, I should have seen this coming. This baseball commission was not Charlie’s first using sports equipment. Last year he was asked to create a painting for the Dallas Mavs Art+Basketball event. Charlie rolled paint-covered basketballs across a large canvas and spray-painted blue and green basketballs through basketball net webbing. But there weren’t paint-covered basketballs smashing against a canvas. Charlie didn’t insist on setting up a net and trying to make a basket with a painted ball. No, for the basketball painting, sports equipment became interesting tools to be used. Charlie was not actually playing the sport with the canvas.

But Charlie loves sports: baseball, basketball, golf, running, soccer, swimming. And finding a way to combine that love with his passion for creating art seemed like an obvious outcome.

So yes, I guess I should have seen this coming as a natural evolution from using sports equipment as painting tools to playing the sport while making the art!

Moreover, I should have trusted him, but I confess I didn’t. Not at first. I doubted, I questioned. Canvas was expensive. Three canvases were even more expensive! What if the baseballs dented the canvas? Plus it was a huge commission for a brand new stadium for the Texas Rangers! Didn’t Charlie feel any pressure in trying something so new and different for a big project? I know I felt the pressure!

But Charlie smiled and held firm, finally patting my hand and telling me, “It’s OK, Mom,” with perhaps a teensy bit of irritation in his voice.

In that moment, I did a little deep breathing, and let my mind travel back to baby Charlie and his early intervention team visits. All those years ago I was taught to “follow his lead.” Instead of barreling up to Charlie with a bright, Big Bird plush toy or a tinny toy xylophone, I learned to follow Charlie’s eyes, his hands, his interests, his motivations and engage with him there. That’s where the learning, the teaching and the relationship would flourish.

As Charlie stopped patting my hand, I let go of my issues around the commission paintings. I embraced his interests, his voice, his choices and direction. Using that early intervention “follow his lead” skill was spot on regardless of his age, my age or our adult relationship.

And in true Charlie fashion, once that T-ball set arrived in his studio, he combined his love of baseball and painting to create a bright and original triptych, while also casually hitting a ton of home-runs.

Currently, Charlie’s completed paintings hang at the Globe Life Field, and hopefully, once COVID is under control, he can enjoy seeing it in person. If you like, you can see him swinging those painted balls against the canvases via his YouTube channel, Just Charlie French. You can also follow his art journey on Instagram @justcharliefrench.

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