Beauty in the attitude of the beholder

By Jen Kerner

A St. Louis artist with Asperger’s syndrome turns the concept of disability on its head by taking advantage of his way of seeing the world

Beauty, as the adage goes, is in the eye of the beholder. Dan Talbot, member of Everyone Deserves a Shot, applies this philosophy to his art and to his disability.

Dan, from St. Louis, Mo., has nurtured a passion and talent for art his entire life. He began as a painter alongside his father, specializing in landscapes – “I was practically born with a brush in my hand,” he says. Later, he branched out at the Turner Center for the Arts, a suburban St. Louis studio that serves as a creative space for artists with disabilities. But last fall, Dan began applying his keen painter’s eye to photography through the Everyone Deserves a Shot program at Life Skills, a St. Louis agency helping people with developmental disabilities learn, live and work in their community.

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    The inside of the chapel at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. The stained glass was eye-catching because of the new, contemporary feel of it. — Daniel Talbot
  • This is at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica. The colors of the candles are not what they seem. The flames create an interesting light effect. — Daniel Talbot
  • This is part of the chain-link fence around my backyard. The horse head seemed unusual, and the happy little twig just wanted to be in the picture. — Daniel Talbot
  • Extreme close-up of a bulb in the chandelier over our dining room table. I was experimenting with angles and using the tripod to get close to an object when I took this shot. — Daniel Talbot
  • An extreme close-up of part of a water feature outside Mercy Hospital St. Louis. — Daniel Talbot
  • This is a picture of my grandparents’ grand piano. They’ve had it for as long as I can remember. I just thought this angle of the keys looked cool. — Daniel Talbot
  • I took several portraits of this common nighthawk that came to the Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center. This is my favorite. — Daniel Talbot
  • I took this picture of a wild crow on an overcast day at the St. Louis Zoo. — Daniel Talbot
  • Taken at the Missouri Botanical Garden, this is the inside of a flower at their rainforest exhibit. — Daniel Talbot
  • This little guy seemed to be posing for me. If you look closely, you can see his left wing is torn. — Daniel Talbot
  • This is the inside of a desktop fan that looked like it hadn’t been dusted in a while. — Daniel Talbot
  • This is Fort de Chartres in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. Some ancestors on my dad’s side helped build it. — Daniel Talbot
  • This American goldfinch chick at Wild Bird Rehab was pretty upset because he had an eye infection, but he still cooperated long enough to get this photo. — Daniel Talbot

The “Everyone Deserves a Shot” program, which placed cameras in the hands of individuals with developmental disabilities, began with a class taught by photographer Natalie Cayton and ended with an exhibit at St. Louis’ Third Degree Glass Factory. The class gave Dan a new way to express his artistic vision, and the exhibit allowed him to sell several of his photographs – which, in turn, sparked an idea for a budding career as a freelance photographer.

Dan takes, in his own words, “pictures of stuff that most people would just overlook as kind of an average piece of junk.” His photos are of everyday things that others pass without a second thought. A dusty computer keyboard. A set of stairs seemingly leading nowhere. The inside of an old piano. The weathered, arthritic hand of an old man. Through his lens, Dan finds the beauty in the ordinary. Whether intentional or not, Dan’s art makes a statement about himself and every person with a disability – and every person, period. No one is junk. No one deserves to be overlooked. And everyone, if you look through the right lens, has beauty in them.

Dan looks through the right lens at his photographic subjects and at his disability. Asperger’s syndrome, he says, allows him to think in images, which gives him the fresh perspective that makes his ordinary subjects appear anything but. To Dan, the word disability, when applied to Asperger’s syndrome, is a misnomer: the difference in perception gives him an advantage.

Light, though, is always accompanied by shadows, and Asperger’s syndrome has not been an advantage to Dan in every facet of his life.  Before making the decision to focus on creating and selling as a freelance artist, Dan struggled in other employment. He found himself “blocked, blocked, blocked,” in the words of his mother Sue Healey, when working in a central-supply job at an area skilled nursing facility and searching for similar positions elsewhere. Success came, Sue says, when her son “focused on what his passion was”: sharing his perspective in pictures.

Since aiming his lens at his true passion, Dan has exhibited and sold photos at multiple shows in the St. Louis area. His work has been featured in exhibitions at Mercy Hospital St. Louis and Urban Arts Collective, and Apostrophe readers have previously seen a sample of his work in the Summer 2012 issue. Dan is also working with Life Skills support staff toward his long-range goal of supporting himself through freelance photography. And even in his spare time, Dan finds a place for the camera by contributing photos to the Facebook page of St. Louis’ Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, where he is a regular volunteer.

The old adage is only partially true. Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder; as Dan Talbot proves through his artwork, beauty is in the attitude of the beholder as well.


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