Friday, May 31, 2013

Life on the drawing board


Stephie Coveart is an original.

The 21-year-old has autism but is a social butterfly.

She can’t read, write, do math or tell time.

But the joy that bounces from her drawings of cats and dogs—each coloured in bright, bold markers, floating on white space and with quirky facial expressions—has attracted the attention of artists and animators.

“She’s pretty high-functioning socially, but her more profound disability is her developmental disability,” says Tracey Coveart, Stephie’s mother.

When Stephie graduated from high school last year, the thought of creating a meaningful life for her was daunting.

“At 21 the kids are put out into the world, whether they’re ready for it or not—and a lot are not,” Tracey says. “They lose their community, their friends, the structure and stimulating activities. When school stopped and that routine ended, Stephie would spend her whole day on the couch rocking unless we scheduled activities where she could go out with us.”

Stephie’s parents are artists who work from home. Tracey’s a writer and editor and Rob Greenway, her stepfather, is a musician and voice actor.

Stephie began an adult day program Mondays and Tuesdays but “it’s very
expensive,” Tracey says. “Sending her full-time was unaffordable for us. I don’t know what parents who work out of the house full-time do.”

On a typical day at home Stephie gets up while her parents sleep (they work into the wee hours of the morning), walks her dog Max to the end of the street and back, then heads to the family room to download cat photos, listen to music or play pet shop games.

Later Tracey may set up Stephie’s work station and papers so she can do a couple of hours of art. They have lunch together, run errands, take the dog for a run at the beach, do yoga or watch Stephie’s favourite Disney show: Kim Possible.

“We do as much as we can with her, but then she’s on her own while we get down to the business of making a living,” Tracey says. “I feel guilty when I leave her for hours watching her videos or downloading cats. But she’s happy to do that.”

Just before she graduated, Stephie framed some of her drawings and gave them to school staff. “Their response was overwhelming,” Tracey says. “The art teacher said ‘she has a gift,’ so we thought maybe we should throw up a website.”

Thanks to a number of serendipitous connections since then, Stephie’s work has been recognized in the art world and her parents recently registered a business—Stephimals—to sell her work.

But before this turn of events—“there was nothing for her to do,” Tracey says. “We would have happily let Stephie go to school for the rest of her life and that would have been a good situation for her. Even if she could have gone three days a week, something that could give her life shape and meaning and purpose in a way she could process.”

Volunteering didn’t work out because Stephie needed to be supervised, her mom says. She wanted to work at an animal shelter but was turned down because she couldn't work independently. A transition program that might have been promising was slashed.

“She became depressed for the first time, didn’t want to go outside and would cry uncontrollably that everyone had a dog and we didn’t,” Tracey says. “We did get her a dog and that eased her transition.”

Thinking about the day when they’re not here to care for Stephie is frightening.

“This is a real conundrum for parents and society,” stepdad Rob says. “Adults like Stephie can’t function in ‘normal’ society because they need constant supervision. What happens to Steph when she’s 50 and we’re not around? Without being able to read, write, prepare meals, find her way around, or use money, she’s unbelievably vulnerable. And what about her ability to feel she’s contributing to the world, and not end up being shut up in a room or in an institution of some sort?”

Stephie doesn’t have same-age friends, but she does connect with adults at the dog park, those who buy and appreciate her drawings, and with her parents’ friends, who include Stephie in their get-togethers.

“Our world is Steph,” Tracey says. “It’s definitely tiring mentally to always have to be on and responsive to her needs. She talks a lot and likes to engage you in repetitive dialogue about movies. There are things we miss out on as a couple. Rob does a lot of things on his own because we can’t leave Stephie alone. There are many things I don’t go to. We don’t have a caregiver for Steph and we won’t leave her alone at night. Yet in spite of the challenges and uncertainty of the future I can’t imagine having a more joyful presence in my life. Steph doesn’t see herself as different or deficient and she exists in this little happy place. She’s one of the most balanced and content people I know.”

A couple of times each year Stephie visits her grandfather for a few days.

The rest of the time Mom, Dad and Steph operate as a threesome.

“We tried a few weekends of respite care but she couldn’t handle it,” Tracey says. “There were too many loud people, too many people asking questions and too many people acting out. Steph got a migraine and had to come home.”

Stephie’s interest in drawing began as a child, with colouring books. But she only filled in animals, not people or any details. “And she would only colour the eyes, and then the book would go in the garbage,” Tracey says.

About 10 years ago she started drawing her unique cats and dogs on grocery receipts and restaurant napkins. Today she uses archival art markers on acid-free Bristol paper.

“None of the colours are the same, none of the expressions are the same, the number of legs vary, as do other characteristics,” Tracey says. “That’s why they’re all completely original. It’s a real style. She chooses the colours and comes up with names for each one.”

Giovanni, Off-kilter and Baby Coagulant are all part of the crew.

Stephie doesn’t draw backgrounds and her animals float in space. It’s a reflection of how she views the world, Rob says.

“There’ll be a crowd of 3,000 people and Steph will see a Yorkshire terrier the size of a small toaster. That’s all she sees.”

“She can’t really tell us, but we think she operates with tunnel vision,” Tracey says. “She’s largely unaware of her surroundings, of people or buildings. But she processes animals.”

Stephie can’t articulate her dreams for the future because she lives in the present, her parents say. “She can’t project or envision,” Tracey says. “We know she’d be happy working with animals, but she loves her adult day program and making Stephimals brings her tremendous joy. I think she imagines life will go on like this forever, living with Mom and Dad and her pets.

“The only times we’ve talked about supportive housing or a different housing arrangement that means not living with us, she refuses to talk about it. When pressed, she cries. She can’t bear that kind of thinking, so long-range planning is truncated for us.”

Rob notes that Stephie’s animals are “a perfect extension of who she is.”

“Bright and colourful and innocent and pure and uncluttered,” Tracey says.

Her emerging talent is miraculous, Tracey says, considering her early childhood. "Who would have thought it possible for a girl who used to be in her own world, non-verbal, crying inconsolably for 23.5 hours a day, unable to crawl or walk, intolerant of touch and suffering a seizure every 10 seconds? That's why I believe we are blessed."

Still, the future looms large.

“What do we do if Stephimals doesn’t pan out and this is all for nothing?” Rob asks. “It’s a scary situation and we’re pinning a lot of hope on this. We’re taking money from our retirement savings to invest in this.”

"I'm not a gambler and this is like putting everything we have in a slot machine and hoping it pays out," Tracey says. "We will never be able to retire!"

Visit Stephie at Stephimals.



Reactions:

11 comments:

I'm posting this comment for a friend who had difficulty:

Julie Alyson

What a lovely and inspirational story. I have no doubt you are creating an open window and a wonderful life for your family.

I am very similar to Stephanie, if only I was inspired to keep drawing when I was a child (My father was an artist as well), but both my parents had a hard time with a "challenged child in the 60's and 70's, (it was the times). I am now 50 just getting back to art, it was all about kids and animals also cartoon style.

Thank you for sharing the love and courage of your lives. May you all continue to thrive and inspire all who come to visit your new Stephimals site! <3

<3 Julie

What a great post! I love art and so I enjoyed reading about Stephie's talent, but I also got so much hope from reading about her. My son (age 7) is nonverbal, has atonic seizures, is developmentally delayed, and is content to watch videos all day. So, reading that Stephie was similar to this at a young age but is doing so much now as an adult gives me so much hope! I can't wait to check out her Stephimals site!

What a fantastic post -- I want to share it with everyone! I see such joy and radiance on their faces -- particularly Stephie!

Stephanie and her art are beautiful! I wish her so much success and I am sending her parents loving kindness through the ethers. I so get your love and devotion, and your worry .... all of it.

God bless.

I left my comments a few days ago but do not yet see them posted. I wrote about my admiration for this family and my frustration regarding the predictament they are in. I addressed the transition planning process and other issues that seem pertinent. Hopefully it'll show up --thanks very much.

Hi Anonymous -- thanks for your message. I've posted the only comments that I've received. Please feel free to write me at lkinross@hollandbloorview.ca if I can post a response for you (someone else on this post had difficulty). Thanks!

I'm sorry Louise I wrote from my heart a lengthy posting and don't feel ready to start over. I am sorry to hear that someone else had difficulty too. All my best to Stephanie and her family. They deserve to be treated much better. It would seem that the high school she attended let her down in that any transition planning arranged was clearly not adequate. So sad. Please keep us updated about this amazing young lady and her family.

Congrats Stephanie! I love your work and your website. I hope you don't mind that I've posted a link to your site and this blog on www.respiteservices.com/cochranetemiskaming. All artists bloom in a supportive environment, and your parents sound great! My daughter has severe bipolar disorder and is just coming out in the art world too. Her art is on https://www.facebook.com/MotherColour. I wish you the best and I'll be keeping up with your website and sharing it, have fun! Joanne Proulx Kapuskasing

Thank you, everyone, for your kind words, your encouragement and your support. Our journey with Stephanie has been nothing short of miraculous. She is an amazing, talented, loving, genuine, beautiful and joyful young woman - all of which we believe comes through so brilliantly in her art. We all have a gift, and we are so blessed that Stephanie has found a way to express and share hers - and that so many people are sharing her story. Stephie just spoke at the Autism Ontario AGM on June 7 and she shone like the Hope Diamond. She is an inspiration and we hope that the STEPHimals continue to provide her with purpose, with promise for the future and with a chance to make friends all around the world.

Stephie your pictures are fabulous! I also know your Grandma was beaming with pride when she told me about your wonderful success last evening. I look forward to checking out your website and the new Stephimals!
Sheila Wilson