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M listening, photograph by Jack Davis

Jack Davis 'Brotherly Love'.

"I had love for him as a family member and as a human being. But I also felt every emotion at times during the project. Beyond the most prevalent emotion of frustration, there was joy, surprise and even anger. My purpose in photographing him was to understand him and, in particular, my relationship with him." Jack Davis.

Jack Davis signals that a sibling relationship is at the heart of his blog with the title “Brotherly Love”. You may wonder if there is irony in the title as Jack's brother M has profound learning disabilities alongside autism and has never spoken or seemed to acknowledge Jack. I feel the blog is best understood as an attempt to come to terms with what it has meant to be such a sibling and that Jack approaches this with respect and something approaching devotion to M. I found this intensely moving.

“Brotherly Love” intersects with my own areas of special interest, these being art history, art therapy and autism. My excitement at finding this extraordinary work online has been further heightened by the quality of the endeavour, Jack's drive to connect with M and his subsequent diversion towards art as therapy. The tight structure of a daily entry and Jack's earnest and open voice go quite some way to containing this sensitive material. Rich in content and sheer human interest, this blog makes compelling, if at times painful reading. Visually it is a delight. It has much for the general reader, the autism community particularly siblings, and for art therapy students and professionals. For the latter group I can see Jack's blog becoming recommended reading*.

My intention was to focus my review on the blog after Jack’s seminal reencounter with M in November 2013, to highlight Jack’s wonderfully interesting foray into art therapy, but the story arc of the blog and the back story of M has been too powerful to resist. I found that I needed context for the emotional work after November and recommend that the blog be read in it’s entirety. However, it is the November 11th entry that gives the blog it’s most dramatic, decisive and uncomfortable moment.

"I need to process today’s events some more, but it sure seems that all the years I spent remembering my childhood with Mike, using photography to inspect and look for clues about his behavior, trying to correlate his facial expressions with ambient events in the environment...was a monumental waste of time...We’re strangers. In fact, we must be annoying strangers, since he got up and left us for the couch across the room. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not surprised."

Jack tells me that his parents were given no choice but to have M placed in a facility. So much of sibling experience must be predicated on resources available to families (including a true appreciation of autistic perspectives pioneered by such writers as Temple Grandin in the 1990's). The work of Temple Grandin and others in providing a cultural translation of autistic perspectives has been carried forward by a talented cohort of bloggers and is beginning to come through into the media but has yet to impact fully on mainstream culture. Along with the lack of option to support a child like M in a family home in the 1950’s, this vital perspective would not have been available to Jack's family. It’s indeed commendable that Jack has remained constant in his attempt to connect with M and in his subsequent decision to work on his own understanding and repair. Neither Jack not M were supported in their time, and the raw response to seeming sibling 'rejection' on the 11th November must be read as a simply that. My heart went out to both brothers.

It is after the ‘reunion’ with M at the group home that Jack begins a deep exploration of creative processes with a particular focus on self expression. The geographical distance between the brothers (one living on the West coast the other on the East) provides a metaphor, for the chasm that can occur when neurology and social conditions create a seemingly unbridgeable divide in the ability to relate. You ache for M's perspective alongside Jack's, whose wonderful black and white portraits unfailingly portray a dignified and ceaselessly photogenic M. I wonder if Jack might agree that this record animates M and there is an eloquence of gesture though which I feel M does 'speak'. More of this later.

When Jack momentarily leaves his emphasis on M behind you sense a liberation of kinds.

"I am moving away from intellectualizing about autism, probing my memory and records as to whether communication between my brother and me happened or not and performing postmortems on my relationship with him, as I have done in many previous posts."

Photography to one side Jack takes up watercolours and an internal struggle between the desire for technique and skill and an emotional connection through painting sets in. Adherence to technique can be a common roadblock to emotional engagement with materials and in allowing unconscious processes to lead. Undaunted Jack turns to art history and begins to study the work of Juan Miro among others. What follows is an impressively rapid development of confidence and ideas through daily encounters with colour, texture and technique. Here I sense the child in Jack that was overshadowed by events finding a freer space in which to play. By December Jack is arriving at the notion of personal iconography and on the 24th December M is back in an abstract portrait developed from from a photograph of the fateful November visit.

By December 30th Jack reports progress in developing an iconography that proves important in integrating the emotional work of auto therapeutics and incorporating the subject of his relationship to and distance from M.

"The art of Joan Miró and Paul Klee inspired me to seek graphical symbols (icons) that have meaning to me. Miró’s work has a poetic rhythm on the page and Klee studied the simple ways that children and the mentally ill express themselves. Klee was influenced by the work of Hans Prinzhorn who wrote The Art of Insanity."

Symbols become the key to working through the feeling Jack has of an "invisible impenetrable barrier" between himself and M. On the 8th of January a study with a diagonal line below which the non-verbal world is expressed in saturated colour. The observer's view (Jacks) is more muted and yet the symbols from each side merge and harmonise beautifully and musical notes are shared.

My delight in Jack’s freer play was matched by my joy at the return of M and the way in which Jack is beginning to marry the visual library of photographs containing M’s gestures with his new found latex resist watercolour technique and iconographic language. Jack’s adventures with watercolour produce some glorious results and there are many entries to feed the eye on, which it would be easy to dwell on in this review. However, there is one series of studies that stand out for me from January 20th “Expressive Hands” to “Gestures as Icons” January 24th through which Jack comes to a new understanding.

“I took my own advice and started thinking about what my brother’s hand positions represented to me instead of trying to divine what he meant by them.”

This is an extraordinarily powerful series of studies through which Jack achieves so much not only in pictorial terms but also in terms of insight. I am reminded of the novel The heart is a lonely hunter by Carson McCullers in which a deaf mute man named John Singer becomes the blank canvas for the thoughts and feelings of the hearing speaking characters and imagine John Singer’s responses in line with their own needs and wishes. Through this work, Jack moves on from this position of divination to owning his feelings.

In this series Jack uses photographs and his observation that M’s hands are delicate and expressive, to produces a series of ‘icons’ in "Study for Hand Atlas". So hands become symbols, and Jack works to distill the essence of his brother’s eloquence - you might say, an idea that he spoke with his hands.

“ Mike’s hands are visual elements because of the delicate awkwardness with which he holds them. His hands are thin and, I would even say, dainty. However, sometimes he didn’t treat them delicately; he used to slap his head and chest, and bite his hand really hard when he was frustrated.”

This is heartbreaking, but Jack uses a scientific approach to produce a container for the gamut of emotion contained in these gestures ‘Hand Atlas” which I read as an attempt to record a kind of emotional alphabet to which we need attach no specific meanings. This seems to signal acceptance, the hands are simply there with no need for intercession or interpretation. I love Jack’s use of latex resist in the first stage of this study, eerie latex hands hang in space, and in the second stage the power of negative space occupied by the hand icons against the black background is substantial. Jack talks about the Hand Atlas becoming a wall of gestures and this seems to me to be a grand ambition and tribute to M.

It remains to be seen where the blog will go next, but I have felt privileged to spend time with Jack and have come to feel M’s presence as a vital force in Jack’s life. I have appreciated Jack’s openness at the difficulty of his task and his drive for resolution. His latest entry (at the time of writing) eloquently highlights one of the struggles at the heart of art therapy

“I am struggling with the distinction of using icons as pictograms – another way of writing – as opposed to using them to depict my feelings.”

I look forward immensely to reading how Jack begins to resolve this.

Please see a link for Jack's blog in the Artistic Spectrum section of this website.