Hope, inspiration through art

Michael Tolleson’s art has picked up a global following. Now, using his art studio, he wants to reach out and work with the autistic community - Mark Klaas, Auburn Reporter
Michael Tolleson’s art has picked up a global following. Now, using his art studio, he wants to reach out and work with the autistic community
— image credit: Mark Klaas, Auburn Reporter

Whenever Michael Tolleson takes up a brush, his autism paints.

In strokes of vivid color and harmonizing hues, he creates outstanding, and outstandingly beautiful, art.

Tolleson in-breathes the emotional tone of a landscape, a person or a situation, and in one hour or less exhales an inspiring piece. Acrylic, his medium of choice, lets him finish a work even before the paint has dried.

The resulting oil-like painting is revealing, impressionistic.

It's a gift he struggles to explain.

"I don't even know what I'm doing," the autistic savant artist said at his recently-opened art studio in south Kent. "When I start the canvas, I don't know what it's going to look like when I finish, but I know it's always right.

"I'm blessed with something," he said. "It's a gift housed inside this vessel."

Tolleson's career has blossomed in such a short time, garnering national and worldwide attention from the autistic art community. Galleries – local and beyond, including Polly's Place in London – have embraced his emotion-based paintings.

The Kent man's autistic journey through his work is the subject of soon-to-be-published book, displaying 100 of his paintings.

All this from an unpretentious artist self-diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, which, he explains, accounts for his ability to paint proficiently and effectively without formal training.

Tolleson deflects the praise.

"It's not about me, it's about what I do through what I have," he said.

With his career and company established, Tolleson wants to share his gift with others. People are always telling him, he says, that his paintings give hope, inspiration and light to the autistic community, especially to youth.

Tolleson has donated his work to numerous charitable organizations throughout the country. Such work, he hopes, opens more gateways and inspires more children with autism to believe that they can express themselves through art.

To spread his mission and to become more accessible to families and children throughout South King County, Tolleson and his partner, Jack Carl Anderson, also an autistic artist, recently moved their Seattle studio and autistic art mentoring center to the Kent Business Center at 25524 74th Ave S.

The Michael Tolleson Savant Art Center is roomy, accommodating offices, art mentoring classrooms, a parent lounge area, a large art studio and a warehouse to store finished artwork. The center allows artists to continue their meaningful work even as they inspire others to grow through the language of art. At the center, children on the autistic spectrum can express themselves through art and various mediums.

"We're making a difference," Anderson said. "We believe in giving them the opportunity and tools they need to express their creativity and judgment."

The center provides one-on-one attention, a flexible hands-on approach to artists ages 6 and older who are able to take instruction, nonverbal or otherwise.

Each month, as part of an open house and community outreach, the MTS Art Center hosts a group art project.

"What we do for the kids who come in is needed," Tolleson said. "They look forward to being here, and they look forward to what we do with them."

The idea, Tolleson says, is to welcome and challenge students, not judge them.

"We give them a safe place and a place where they are recognized," he said. "We listen. We're not art therapy, we're not babysitting. ... We're here because we have something to give.

"We recognize what the child is interested in. If the child wants to draw dinosaurs, we draw dinosaurs with them," Tolleson added. "But we're not complacent with them. We push their limits. So, if you're doing dinosaurs, can you draw a palm tree with it? Or, if you're using pencil, can we now use oil pastels?

"We push limits, what their abilities are. By doing that, we're making them go beyond."

And to become something more, just like the instructors.

"For whoever we are," Tolleson said, "we recognize that (if) you have a gift, you give a gift."


To learn more about the center and its programs, call 253-850-5995, visit, or email The Michael Tolleson Savant Art Center is on Facebook.

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