Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Sculpture and capturing the autistic moments we all have


In the deep sml When an artist has a condition there is always the question of how or if that condition influences their work.  I was sent an interview about my relationship to sculpting, particularly the relationship of my autism to my sculpting.  Thought I’d share it.

1) When did you first start sculpting?


I could say at 36, which was when my sculpting burst out.  I did one piece, then a second then leapt straight into a life size piece which got on the TV news because it was really unexpected, this life sized figure at the standard of advanced sculptors from someone who had only done two other pieces in her life.  I was asked how but I told them the skill didn’t come out of ‘nowhere’ because just because I wasn’t seen to sculpt before didn’t mean I hadn’t been learning.  I had made fluff sculptures from lint all my life.  I’d put small statues in my mouth to explore their form throughout mid childhood.  I’d formed my body into the figures of statues at the cemetary in my teens to feel what it was to have these movements and form.  I’d stared through the cat to try and feel how it was formed, how it breathed.  These, too, are the actions of a sculptor.  Just I had such acute Exposure Anxiety I had always been too terrified to dare expression through clay or any conventional expression of sculpture.  I had once made a clay mouse when I was 12 but after the teacher complimented about it I crushed it up.  The connection with humans through art was too scary so it took until adulthood to have the social freedom where I could ignore that and still let the art out.

2) Why do you sculpt? What do you hope to convey?


I don’t hope to convey, I just feel like a chicken needing to lay an egg and there’s a feeling in me that wants expression through my hands.  Sometimes I’ll let that out at the piano and music will compose itself.  Sometimes through paint and a painting will form itself.  Typing was like that too for many many years.  So sculpture is largely like that too for me.  I DO then I KNOW.  Not the other way around.  So I guess its a way of taking internal, pictureless, non-verbal feelings and producing them externally through things that express the emotion without contortion via conscious mind.  I guess I feel that mind can judge and inhibit, and so for me, arts bypasses that.  That makes me so lucky.  So many artists struggle with mind getting in the way but in my brain arts comes from my gut somehow and conscious mind either isn’t highly entangled or is kept out of the way.

3) What artists have influenced you? How have they influenced you?

I’d like to say I was influenced by artists but I was influenced instead largely by agnosias (meaning deafness, meaning blindness).  As a kid I was totally face blind, couldn’t even recognise my reflection as me, couldn’t see bodies or faces or objects as a whole, so I learned to stare through people and things so I could map out the FEEL of them.  I was also 90% meaning deaf until late childhood, so you can imagine, not much is left to make sense of humans so what I tuned into was their movements and their speech patterns.  I couldn’t read facial expression or body language (which requires seeing people as visual wholes) but I had mapped out and had a passion for the way a hand would pick up a glass, the way a foot would rest on the floor.  I don’t sculpt by vision.  I do it by feel.  My hands are my eyes.  I have relatively cohesive vision now (tinted lenses, brain gym, nutritional interventions) and I’m only about 30% meaning deaf and 80% faceblind and I’m more context blind than object blind now.  But I still sculpt a bit like a blind sculptor.

When I was in mid childhood, though, my father filled the house with statues and I was left tiny statues, eventually about 50 of them.  And I had studied their detail with my mouth and turned them out at the side of my eye (because peripheral vision is more cohesive).  I’d place them near and far to try and see them as a whole when far away.  So I studied form this way too.

I discovered other sculptors in my 30s but I’m not really into that.  I think Matisse and Michaelangelo captured movement wonderfully.  Renoir, though a painter, does this too.  Among autistic artists, I love the figurative works of Christophe Pillault.

4) A lot of your sculptures seem to be figures? Why choose figures?

Probably because I grew up object blind and am still relatively context blind, and humans and animals MOVE and it is movement I have a passion for.  So without processing visual context, objects interest me, but not sculpturally, because they don’t move by themselves.  I also like the individuality of humans.  Because I struggle to read facial expression or body language what is left is this ‘music of beingness’ which is individual to each person and this reminds me that we are all diverse, all of us.  Spiritually, that really matters.  I’ve had acute Exposure Anxiety, Social Phobia, Agoraphobia.  So breaking down barriers by finding ways of relating to humans, feeling for them, is really emotionally healthy and being autistic is no reason to ignore what one is weak at.  I love to challenge myself.  Whilst I’m known for my figurative works, I do also do just as many abstract works.  These are more like poetry expressed through sculpture and not figurative at all.
5) Do you have a favorite subject? If so, why?

Not at all.  It’s up to the feeling and which way it pulls as soon as my hands are on the clay.
6) Do you think that any of your autistic characteristics give you any sort of advantage in your sculpting?

I think my sculpting is highly influenced by agnosias and it’s hard to be significantly meaning deaf, object blind, context blind and face blind without developing and responding ‘autistically’.  For me, the autistic side is more about Exposure Anxiety and that definitely comes through my work.  It is often strikingly solitary.  I capture figures very much in their own worlds, whether in power, bliss, fear, humor or daring, that’s one of the main features of my work.  It has an ’emotionally autistic’ element to it.  It sort of expresses that I see autism in all humans and I do think they do all have their autistic moments, phases, spaces and many over compensate, afraid people will see their inner worlds.  I guess its kind of cheeky too to expose that through sculpture, so sort of say, we’re all autistic, and that’s unifying too. I guess some people call being mono-tracked the same as being ‘autistic’ but for me that’s about managing processing as best I can, maybe about Dyspraxia and having a brain where the departments aren’t as linked and others are linked in strange ways (I have synethesias too… I see musically and sometimes have colors from touch).  The mono thing means I can totally get lost i what I’m creating, so much so I feel it utilises me rather than the other way around.
7) What effects do you think autism has on your sculpture?

It’s given me an outsiders perspective, but also a passion to understand other people’s worlds, to find the connections.  I think every autistic artist spiritually or neurologically draws on very different aspects of their autism and that the word itself means so many things.  I have had agnosias all my life, been bipolar since age 3, had Exposure Anxiety since age 2, had OCD at 9.  I’m also an ‘autistic’ personality and experienced great struggles with daring to come out or stay out of my own world as myself.  Did all of these things influence my spirituality and ARTism?  Sure. These things developed my affinity with Taoism which I feel influences my work as much as autism itself.  For me, autism is all about two opposing forces at all levels.  Whilst autism can lead to great creativity, it can lead to its opposite too.  Autistic withdrawal, for example, is a response to a world one can’t understand, process or communicate in.  And that can lead to rigidity, exclusion and introversion to a degree it limits the flow of creativity, interaction, development.  But politically, ‘autistic’ is also being used as ‘single minded’ or ‘obsessive’ and provided one is not crippled by that it can sometimes lead to very empowering, inspirational things.  I guess that’s Taoism in a nutshell.  That the coin has two sides.

Thanks for the interview.


Donna *)

Donna Williams, Dip Ed, BA Hons.
Author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter.
Autism consultant and public speaker.