EUGENE — Like many artists, Sheila Hammon paints only when the spirit moves her. The walls in nearly every room of the house she shares in west Springfield show just how often that is.
A huge canvas hangs just inside the front door, covered with deep, overlapping slashes of dark color. A few feet farther on, in the dining area, there's another large painting, as light and airy as a cotton candy, with three smaller ones — one a brilliant concoction of yellow and orange — keeping it company.
Some are deep purple. One is reminiscent of Jackson Pollack, with a dark, almost fractallike feel. Darlyne Nicholson, who serves as support staff and a personal advocate for 45-year-old Hammon, who is autistic, says her charge can be as both as productive and as temperamental as any Van Gogh or Caravaggio.
"She's like any artist — if she's not in the mood, forget it," Nicholson said. "She seems to prefer certain colors at certain times, but when she's done, she's done."
Nicholson owns one of Hammon's paintings that she couldn't resist buying for her own wall.
"She was not in a bad mood when she did it, just really quiet," she said. "It's green, black and gray, and it's just like looking down a tunnel."
Hammon's artistic bent has won her one of six $100 grants this year from KindTree Productions, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to "serving and celebrating the Autism Community through art, education and recreation," according to one of its spokesmen, Tim Mueller.
Every year, KindTree's Autism Rocks program, with financial backing from the Lane Arts Council, chooses several artists around the country — this year four of six live in the Lane County area — to receive small grants to help them further their art.
The money might go toward paint and brushes, the purchase of computer equipment for digital art or a special art class.
Applicants for the grants may be any age or from any place, Mueller said. The only thing they have to promise is to produce at least one work of art to be shown in the local "Autism Artism" juried art show that happens in April, officially designated as Autism Awareness Month.
This year's monthlong exhibit will be hosted by Territorial Vineyards & Wine Company at 907 W. Third Ave.
"We absolutely want to support this show," said Lisa Rennie, Territorial's tasting manager, aka its "minister of hospitality."
"The pictures I've seen are fantastic, and we'll basically be able to decorate the whole place with the art work," Rennie said. "It just seems like a wonderful thing to do."
Stephen Peeler, 31, has been in the show before and is one of this year's grant winners. He says he's "kind of hooked on two-dimensional pastel stuff right now," but his body of work ranges from still life to whimsical renditions of Super Mario Brothers characters to poster-size collages of cowboys, punk rock artists and even one titled "Serial Killers & Mass Murderers."
Besides Asperger Syndrome, on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, Peeler also has end-stage cystic fibrosis, said his mother, Barbara Peeler. Although Stephen, the oldest of her four sons, lived independently for more than 10 years — "The life skills program at Sheldon High School is amazing in helping their students live successfully on their own," she said — he now lives in his mother's household because of health issues related to his cystic fibrosis.
Many medical researchers believe it's no accident that so many people with autism have high levels of artistic talent. The disorder usually becomes apparent by the time a child is 3 years old and begins to display developmental delays, including speech and social interaction. As many as 10 percent of people diagnosed with autism possess special skills — even at the "savant" level — in art, music, mathematics or memory.
"Because of the Asperger's, every project Steve does is big," Barbara Peeler said. "Whatever topic or style he gets interested in, he researches it and works on it almost exclusively." A 6-inch-by-9-inch pastel can take hours to perfect, she said. Some of his largest pieces take months.
Peeler found his inner artist when a middle-school teacher first encouraged his talent. Although mostly self-taught, "I did go to Lane Community College to learn some of the fundamentals," he said. "I started out with pencil, and at LCC I discovered charcoal. But in 2006, I discovered the pastels, and I just got hooked on the stuff."
One of his latest passions has been otherworldly views of the universe, softly worked pastel stars and planets on a pitch black background.
"I'm really interested in astronomy right now," he said. "A lot of it is my interpretation. I use distance and depth to support that interpretation."
Peeler has created hundreds of paintings and drawings, as well as turning out beautifully shaped and glazed pieces of raku pottery.
Sometimes when he looks back at his work, "There's stuff there that I'm really blown away by," Peeler said. "Sometimes I think, 'Oh, wow, I did that.'?"