OREM — When people step into Utah Valley University’s Cole Nellesen Building, they are typically greeted with myriad colorful paintings, drawings and photos.

They walk through an art gallery, one that UVU’s Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism curates each summer and displays throughout the rest of the year.

Except in 2020.

Like many other events, the Super Spectrum Showcase and Soiree, which recently opened, was forced from its usual home in Orem to a digital platform instead.

“It was different,” Laurie Bowen, the center’s associate director of community outreach, said of the planning process.

However, the online gallery is still stocked with around 150 new pieces of art, each one created by a person on the autism scale.

The center reaches out via email and social media each year asking those with autism to submit art for the gallery. It’s a way to connect people and allow visitors to hear voices that are sometimes quieter than others.

“It’s important for us in a lot of capacities to be able to showcase the strengths and contributions of everyone in our community, and so art is one way we can do that,” Bowen said.

“Autism, sometimes, it just has had stigma to it in the past. I think sometimes when we’re talking about disabilities, people tend to focus on the areas of struggle or difficulty, rather than the strengths and the components of beauty that come through.”

Benjamin holds a piece of his artwork at Utah Valley University in Orem on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Benjamin is a participant in the Super Spectrum Showcase and Soiree at the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism at UVU. | Erik Flores, Utah Valley University

This year, 5-year-old Benjamin Navas submitted a series of drawings he had done on his whiteboard — most of them depictions of animals.

Navas was diagnosed with autism before his second birthday.

“He loves to draw and started drawing when he was around 20 months old,” Jorge Navas, Benjamin’s father, said in a news release. “He started drawing fish and octopuses with chalk on the floor. Later he discovered a whiteboard and markers, and it has since become his favorite. He loves animals and dinosaurs, and he knows every animal’s name. (Art) is the way he shares his fascination with animals; he always wants to let us know what animal is in his mind through his drawing.” 

Bowen said that there are no proficiency requirements to enter a piece into the gallery, and people of all ages are allowed to participate.

“We’re very open to whatever creative format the art comes in, whatever medium,” she said.

However, 3D pieces of art can’t be showcased in this year’s gallery unless they are photographed. The gallery is, for obvious reasons, “more focused on art that is flat,” Bowen said.

But she was quick to point out the many positives that have emerged from the transition.

In the first few days after opening, the online gallery attracted hundreds of visitors. In past years, the center has usually fielded around 100-150 guests during the gallery’s first couple of days.

Caleb Clegg poses for a portrait at Utah Valley University in Orem on Friday Oct. 30, 2020. Clegg is a participant in the Super Spectrum Showcase and Soiree at the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism at UVU. | August Miller, Utah Valley University

Moving the gallery online also made the art curation process easier and induced people from out of the state to submit their pieces for consideration.

“We’ve had, in the past, people interested, but they haven’t really submitted from out of state,” Bowen said. “But this year, we had a school that has some kids with autism in Boston that actually shared some of their art with us.”

Finally, websites are much less prone to running out of space than physical buildings, which has allowed the center to fully display each artists’ talents.

“We have artists that sometimes are pretty prolific, like they might just do a lot of art,” she said. “We don’t ever want to turn a piece away, and the nice thing about doing it electronically is that we can share as much art as they have, because we don’t have the space constraints.”

Individuals who submitted numerous pieces of art were given their own sections in the gallery, where all their work can be seen together.

The one aspect of the project that Bowen misses is the student involvement. In years past, the center has collaborated with UVU students in museum studies classes, taught them about autism and then allowed them to lay out the artwork.

“That I think is a critical component that’s missing this time around, is that we weren’t able to incorporate that component,” Bowen said. “So moving it to online wasn’t difficult, it was just different. And I think there’s been some benefits to it, but there’s also been some of those important connections we haven’t been able to do this time around.”

The most important thing, however, is that the center found a way to continue into its fourth year, despite the pandemic.

“One thing that we try to do is find those universal components that bring us all back to the same equal ground of humanity, basically,” Bowen said. “We’re all people; we all have experiences; we all have something to contribute; we have something to say. And art is a universal language.”

The online gallery will be available to view until May 1.