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Artist Is a Work in Progress : Greg Pelner's Talent, Not His Autism, Draws Attention


WEST LOS ANGELES — Two things distinguish Greg Pelner, 25, from other talented artists his age.

One is that he already is making money. His sculptures and paintings, shown in galleries in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, N.M., sell briskly at prices ranging up to $600.

The other is that Pelner is autistic. The mysterious developmental disorder was diagnosed when he was 4, and doctors told his parents then that he should be placed in an institution.

But today, Pelner is a prolific and versatile artist. To visit his West Los Angeles studio is to travel into a unique world of imagination and whimsy. The shelves are filled with animal and human clay figures created in an endless variety of shapes and sizes.

Pelner's primitive-style pieces have been embraced by collectors as classic examples of "outsider art," the products of someone not formally trained. His works have been included in exhibits at the Grove Gallery in San Diego and at New York's Museum of American Folk Art.

Evidence of Pelner's artistic talent surfaced at age 3 when he began shaping small birds from bits of aluminum foil, according to his parents, Bonnie and Nat Pelner. But even then, there were signs that not all was right.

They got the word in 1972.

"There is no hope," Bonnie Pelner remembers a doctor telling her when her son's condition was diagnosed.

"I don't believe you," she replied.

Autism is a disorder in which victims withdraw into a world of their own, and generally seem to be oblivious to people and things around them. It is characterized by behavior that includes extreme sensitivity to sounds and other stimuli, hyperactivity, repetitive motions and inattention to surroundings. It affects 300,000 to 500,000 people in the United States, very few of whom have learned to live independently.

Greg Pelner, however, had a few advantages. First of all, although his condition was complicated by epilepsy and partial blindness, his autism apparently was not as extreme as it is in some children.

"We really don't understand what autism is," said Dr. William Kneeland, a professor at UCLA Medical School who has treated Pelner for 15 years for his epilepsy and has participated in the treatment for his autism. "Younger children are often described as having a fantasy world, and because of that they pretty much ignore the real world. I think the difference for Greg is that he does have some grasp of the real world."

Autism affects people to varying degrees, Kneeland said. "Some individuals have no communication skills at all. But Greg does have those skills. Some are severely mentally retarded. Greg is not."

Pelner's second advantage was two parents who were determined to raise him at home.

"When you have kids, there is always the possibility that they will have some sort of disability," said Nat Pelner, an engineer with Teledyne Electronic Systems in Northridge. "You have to decide what you want to do. Are you going to feel sorry for yourself or are you going to do something about it? We decided we were going to do something."

Finding little encouragement or support from traditional educational sources, the Pelners discovered a more creative environment at the Wildwood School in Santa Monica, where Greg attended kindergarten through the eighth grade and enrolled in his first art classes.

A turning point occurred with his enrollment for his high school years at the ERAS (Educational Resources and Services) Center in Culver City, a school and service agency for people with learning disabilities.

The Pelners credit ERAS founder and executive director Barbara Cull for providing strong support and a setting in which their son could thrive.

"Barbara saved his life," said Bonnie Pelner, who works part time as a research librarian.

ERAS provided programs and instruction geared toward Pelner's disability, including extensive speech therapy.

"Greg's autism makes it difficult for him to learn in a non-therapeutic setting," Cull said. "You have to be able to look past the disability to see the human being who is there and help that person participate in the world."

After Pelner had been at ERAS for several years, Cull encouraged him to enroll in an evening sculpture class at Beverly Hills High School--partly to develop an artistic talent that was clearly extraordinary, and also to encourage his social interaction in a mainstream setting.

Since graduating from ERAS, he has continued taking art classes as a part-time student at Santa Monica College.

Pelner's disability remains severe. He cannot live independently; his mother or father must be with him almost constantly. He needs to be shielded from noisy settings or overly stimulating environments.

There are many highs and lows associated with autism. Pelner has the reading skills of a 12th-grader, for example, but his comprehension is at the third-grade level.

As with most autistic people, language is a struggle for him.

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