Art Student Considers Autism ‘A Tool and a Gift’

BOWLING GREEN, Va. — Before Joey Frye could talk, he could draw.
As a toddler and young child, he’d sketch imaginative scenes featuring his favorite cartoon characters — Thomas the Tank Engine, Woody and Buzz Lightyear from “Toy Story” and Looney Tunes personalities.

“Joey was nonverbal until he was 4 or 5,” said his father, Sam Frye. “When I look back, it seems like drawing was the one way he could express himself. He started speech therapy when he was 4 years old (about a year before he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder), but his drawing was always expressive.”

When Frye did start talking, his first word was “gondola” — but he didn’t mean the Venetian boat. He meant the open-topped train car used to transport loose bulk material, and he used it correctly.

Frye is now almost 21, a graduate of Caroline High School and a fine arts student at Germanna Community College. He lives with his family in Bowling Green, is garrulous and bursting with questions, but he still uses art to express the unique way he views the world.

Two years ago, he established a business, ARTism by Joey. Its tagline is, “Ideas transformed into magical art for you and other awesome people.”

He just got his business license from the town of Bowling Green earlier this month.

“My mom says that no one under 20 has such an official business like this,” Frye said.

Caroline Frye picked the name for the business, playing on the word “autism.” It’s based on her son’s guiding principle, which is that his condition is “both a tool and a gift.”

He takes commissions for one-of-a-kind paintings, prints, greeting cards or calendars.

“The customer gives me details, three or more specific details,” Frye said. “Something they love, an activity they love, a hobby, their favorite food or animal. Then I compile it into a story.”

The results are colorful, whimsical and crammed with details that are windows into Frye’s singular point of view. His very first commission, “Yog-iano,” was for a family friend who loves yoga and teaches piano lessons. He drew her an elephant playing a piano that is held up by animals performing yoga poses — a flamingo stands in Tree pose and a giraffe is in Warrior.

For a custom baby shower invitation, he drew a literal baby shower with chubby cupids getting sudsed up under a sprinkler. Next to them are hooks and a sign reading, “Please hang your diapers.”

The way Frye sees it, a crabcake is a living crab topped with frosting and birthday candles and shrimp cocktail is a fantastical creature that has the head of a rooster and the tail of a shrimp.

“It’s fun and it makes me feel like it makes people happy,” Frye said about his art. He described one of his favorite commissions — “a very emotional thing” he did for a woman whose daughter had died.

“Her daughter wanted to be a nurse,” he said. “So I drew a picture of her dressed up as a child nurse with angel wings.”

Sam Frye said that what’s magical about his son is that he hasn’t installed the filter most people put up between feelings and the expression of those feelings.

“With Joey, what you see is what you get,” Sam Frye said. “My wife says he is probably the most purely good person she knows. And I would agree with that.”

Frye’s work has started to gain statewide attention.

“This is gonna be a fun part,” he said gleefully when his dad asked him to describe some of the awards and honors he’s received since he started his business.

In 2014, his drawing of a “dinosaur-dragon combo with extraterrestrial features” won Best in Show at the State Fair of Virginia. He was the featured young artist at the Caledon Art and Wine Festival last year and in early March, he was recognized by Del. Margaret Ransone before the Virginia House of Delegates.

Ransone commissioned two pieces from Frye – one for herself and one for her mother — after she met him at the Bowling Green Harvest Festival, where he was a vendor, last year.

“Joey captures people’s stories and brings them joy,” Ransone said in her remarks to the House of Delegates. “These images are unique, meaningful and always thought-provoking.”

Though Frye is the creative heart of ARTism, his parents are deeply involved in the business. Mom Caroline is the IT person and the wordsmith. She comes up with names for each commission.

Dad Sam, who retired a few years ago from his longtime job as a history teacher at Caroline High School, is the scheduler, keeping his son focused. When Frye impulsively offers to take on another commission, he reminds him that he’s working on six others at the moment.

Frye is on track to graduate with a certificate in fine arts from Germanna in December. He has big plans for the future.

“I want to grow my business and be independent,” he said. “And work for a company like Warner Brothers or Disney. Meet some of my favorite characters.”

He said he wants the world to know that people with autism are talented. He doesn’t like hearing about people with intellectual disabilities working in low-wage jobs and believes they deserve better.

“People should hire them at their businesses and give them a high pay,” he said.

Frye said he also might like to have a wife one day — but no children.

Sam Frye said he and his wife are “bursting” with pride in their son. He said they have the same worries for him that all parents have for their children.

“Joey wants to be independent, and we want that for him,” he said.

When his son asks what he’s talking about, he says, “We just want you to be happy and safe.”

“It’s been an amazing journey so far,” Sam Frye continued. “We’re thrilled at the progress he’s made and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do.”

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